Thursday, 18 March 2010

Another day at the 'office’ in Naija.

It was the night before the wedding of Chief Odigie Oyegun’s (Edo state’s ex-governor) daughter. I know because her wedding cake, which was magnificent by the way, was the cause of the horror that befell the house that night. We had since put the dog to rest since it got a bit wacko and attacked my youngest brother and there were no more guards after my father left office or we might have gotten a warning of what was happening outside the house – the harmless gateman (a boy really) and the corper that was in the middle of her service at my mother’s primary school had been taken hostage and were being paraded round the compound while two men with sawed off shotguns men sought an entrance into the house, skipping around the hedges and hiding behind trees, being careful not to alert anyone inside.
Inside we were in a jolly mood as we always are at a ‘cake gathering.’
One of our many traditions is my mother calling everyone into the living room to assess her latest creation when she finishes a wedding cake for a customer. She is quite the genius at what she does and we expect her to outdo herself every time. We gather round to wow if it meets with expectations or shrug if it is like anything she had done before. This was a definite wow – I am sure the Oyeguns still see that cake in their dreams.
My mother cakes are never ordinary and this one had a fountain running under for special effects. There was no water in the fountain at the time and though we had seen the cake in its glory we wanted to see how it would look like with the fountain on. The taps were dry – of all the times in the world that was the most wrong moment. There is a borehole in the middle of the field that feeds water into a well; the water gets pumped up a mini reservoir that sends the water into the house.
It meant that the reservoir was dry. Someone had to go outside and switch the pump on. Just how were we to know that the one thing we were not suppose to do then was open one of the steel doors which would have been near impossible for the vagrants to better if they had decided to force their way in. Nevertheless...
‘Endurance! Go and pump water in the borehole.’ My mother commanded my distant relative who helped with the chores. The very next scene will forever remain surreal in my memory. I can still see where everyone was positioned and see their reactions to what happened next.
There was a mini explosion but we were to learn later that it was the door being kicked in after Endurance had opened it and tried closing it back on seeing what was waiting behind it.
‘Everybody lie down, I say lie down!’
The chair I had been in had its back to the kitchen (through which they gained access) so I had to turn round to see what was going on. The man that ran in was not the kind who would stand out anywhere. Everything about him was average, height, build, clothes, looks. He was about my age I would say, or slightly older – the type I would shake hands with on the street or stop to have a chat with. Beside the wicked looking shotgun that he waved about, creating a sickening chill in me, he did not have that sinister look that one associates with armed robbers. My brothers and I would have been more than adequate to make him regret his sojourn with a few broken bones. The weapon in his hand banished that thought though. It was one of those moments you refuse to accept because this sort of thing only happens to other people; the sort of thing close friends tell you that happened to someone they remotely knew. I was half expecting him to laugh and say he was a relative that had thought it all up as some kind of prank.
‘You are still looking at me? I say lie down!’
No prank.
I would like to say that I jumped him right there, that I seized the gun and knocked him senseless, saving my family the agony of the experience. But I did not. I meekly obeyed, falling to my face quick as I could, hoping he had not noticed anything in my countenance that would rub him the wrong way.
‘We are seven of us and we have surrounded the house. If you misbehave we fire you! Put your face down, you want to look at my face abi?’
To my knowledge everyone had complied with his instruction the first time so I did not know who he referred to. I tried digging a hole in the rug with my face – just in case that had been for me. He had boasted about their number to deter us putting up a fight. They were just two but I sincerely doubt that made any difference. Not with the thought of fatally stopping fast travelling lead with our bodies, running through our minds. I did not see the other man – though he made himself heard a bit later.
He had stealthily moved through the house to see if people were in the rooms and, thinking of it now, that was a wise move (on their part). My cousin had been slow to heed to my mother’s call, taking time to groom himself just after a bath, instead. We learnt that he had just bent down to rub cream on his calves when the barrel of a gun was calmly pushed against his ears. He assumed it was my younger brother up to one of his jokes and without looking back, tried pushing the gun away.
‘Just maintain yourself and behave.’
‘Oh my God.’ My cousin muttered, bending down even lower than he had and raised his hands above his head. He was led into the living room.
‘Oya join them there!’ That was when I heard the second man. ‘Yes Mr man, we have come for you.’
I knew he referred to my father gauging from the distance my old man and the voice talking were. My heart sank. Were they assassins? Memories of Greg’s father filled my head then. Two men had invaded his house and shot the man at point blank range, killing him.
‘If you cooperate with us you will be fine. Where the money dey?’ Okay, some relief there, they wanted money. I prayed we had enough in the house to placate them. That was when my mother sprang into action. This was a bad time for robbers. She had lots of money in the house which was not hers and she was determined they were not getting their hands on it.
‘My sons, why are you doing this?’ She had been the only one not to lie down at their command and now I heard her imploring and hoped they were sane enough not to take offence.
‘Madam, na government force us do this work, oya where your money?’
Surprisingly they indulged her but not without some gruffness, making sure they kept the advantage.
‘The only money I have is from my shop. That is all the money we have.’ She lied. I thought she was mighty brave.
‘Okay wey the money?’
‘Endurance!’ My mother called out. Endurance looked after the shop and she kept the proceeds as well.
‘Endurance!’ The thief echoed. ‘Who be Endurance?’
‘Me.’ I heard Endurance answer, rising to her feet. She sounded calm as well. Strong girl.
‘Wey the money? Wey the money?’ He asked with more force than was necessary really. There was a lull – she was getting it. ‘Wetin be this? Madam you think say we come here come joke?’ They had not been satisfied with what Endurance had to offer. Now what?
‘My sons, that is all I have in house, honestly.’
‘Madam you think say we come play for here? Till we begin dey shoot your children one by one before you go take us serious abi?’
Besides being told about the death of someone dear, I believe those words made up the worst sentence I had ever heard. My stomach churned. That was the point my mother broke. She opened the bedroom door without another moment’s hesitation and gave them free reign to rummage. Only one went with her, the other stayed with us in the living room, keeping us in check. I heard my youngest brother cry out in sudden pain. He had been stepped on where he lay.
‘Sorry small boy, you dey behave well, na only your mama wan misbehave today.’ A polite thief as well.
I began to believe we might just come out of this alive after all. ‘Thief go come una house una go dey panic instead of make una cooperate, give them wetin them want make them commot.’ He said over our heads. It was the most superfluous sermon and if the situation was not so dire I would have laughed out loud. At the time I agreed with him.
‘Hey, see akara, see akara. Wey the gun?’ The man in the room had found the box of bullets to my father’s pump action rifle and he shouted the question at the living room. With hindsight I think they might not have had ammunition in their weapons and were thus eager to really arm themselves soon as they found the bullets. But we would never know – not that I would have been eager to test that theory had it occurred to me at the time. In their hurry they missed the gun as well, finding a harmless air rifle which was promptly discarded. We all kept mum. They found the money though and all of my mother’s jewellery to go with it. Job done.
‘Oya, everybody stand up, straight line!’ I did not know which of them gave the order. We rose to our feet and line up in a file. ‘Move!’ We were marched into one of the rooms in the house.
‘Wey the car key, the car outside, wey the key? My father handed that to them. ‘No worry, we no wan thief the car. We go leave am somewhere for una.’ Just what difference did it make? Strange that they should reassure us of getting the car back though. Turns out they were true to their word. The car was abandoned and found the next day. They locked us in the room and zoomed off. We gave it an hour before shouting to the neighbours for help through the windows.
All this happened about past nine since Kalu Otisi, not minding what was going on in our house, had been reading the headlines on NTA news. It was not that late and given the popularity of our house it was a wonder that no one from the neighbourhood stopped by to visit during the raid. Nepa that had been at their most erractic behaved that night. Maybe it was all for the best. Who knows what would have happened had all those factors not played nicely into their hands.
They visited the neighbours days later and though I called the police (no gsm then) no one came to their rescue. We waited till we were sure it was safe to venture out and I followed my father to see how much they had lost to the thieves. Those were fearful times. I hear it has gotten worse.

Madam na government force us do this work.

Work he had called it. My mother went to her own work the next day to present the cake at the wedding without jewellery and a despondent mien. Heaven only knows how victims cope afterwards, especially when all they have built up in a life time is taken in one night of ‘work.’
We only had words of consolation for the neighbours that had been robbed, just as they had had for us. Not much more one can do to help. I sometimes imagine the words thrown about by these men of the night after a day at the ‘office.’
‘O boy how business now?’
‘Very fine, very fine, thank you. I plan to expand sef and cover more areas.’

God help us all.