BY ISRAEL USULOR

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The road that linked bush market and Zaka City was notoriously dangerous. Apart from the war, the road was notorious for armed robbery attacks even in broad daylight. Every day had its own blood-curdling stories of deadly attacks on bush market-goers. Nobody travelled the road by night or day without a police escort. Traders who went to bush market did so very early and returned late in the night, but the danger remained 50/50, day or night. Traders contributed money to bribe police authorities who made escort vans available for each trip. Yet, Akubundu had told Ikenna that morning that dare-devil robbers had once ambushed a police escort, and that after killing several policemen, they dispossessed traders of their valuables.

‘That was last year,’ said Akubundu. ‘But I didn’t go to bush market that day. I was lucky.’

‘Very lucky,’ concurred Ikenna, who was beginning to be scared. As Akubundu told the story,

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Ikenna’s discomfiture increased. One part of him was listening while the other part evaluated the whole adventure of coming to live in the city. Was it worth it? Was he unlucky? It was not only that Zaka City was a war zone, but it was also that the road he must travel weekly to bush market was a robbers’ den.

‘Nobody prepared me for this,’ he said to himself as the rickety van pulled over. They had reached bush market. Ikenna jumped down from the van and helped Akubundu with the goods. Soon, wheelbarrow and cart pushers besieged the scene.

‘Oga make we go?’ One of them asked Ikenna.

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Don’t worry,’ it was Akubundu who responded instead.

‘Don’t worry I have an errand boy. He will soon be here.’ It was the practice of many an Igbo trader to recruit errand boys whom they paid an agreed amount at the end of each day. Mostly, children between ten and fifteen years of age, these boys helped with many things including loading and offloading, and occasionally, some trustworthy ones helped in the shops. Akubundu also had one named Terfa, a sixteen-year-old lad.

‘Here he comes,’ said Akubundu as he sighted Terfa running towards them with a long cart locally called amalanke.

‘How far?’ Ikenna asked.

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‘Fine,’ Terfa said, looking at Ikenna with that kind of eyes that says “this-is-a-new-comer”

‘Oya make we carry kaya go shop sharp sharp. Time no dey,’ said Akubundu as they loaded the bag of utensils on the truck. As they moved towards Oduburu’s shop, Ikenna’s mind quickly flashed back to the armed robbery stories Akubundu told him while they were coming. It still scared him. He secretly prayed the road would be safe when they would make their return journey later that night.

The market was airy and unlike Zaka City that was the hub of yam, Bush Market was the hub of groundnut. There were bags of groundnut everywhere one turned. After displaying their goods, Ikenna sat outside on a wooden stool waiting patiently for customers. Soon, two fellows approached his table.

‘Na ser inyaregh ki tor kasua,’ said Torkpande, the lankier of the two fellows who stood before the shop. Ikenna was munching shoho, a local delicacy introduced to him by Akubundu. Within few hours of their arrival in the market Ikenna had tried not a few local delicacies including gyoh, the Tiv name for heavily spiced, fried mopane worms. When Ikenna chewed the fried worms, it was so peppery that he thought he heard the sound of the pepper even with his ears.

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‘Me na se inyaregh ki tor kasua,’ repeated Torkpande, shouting as he noticed that Ikenna paid him no attention.

‘Speak English, I no dey hear Tiv language,’ Ikenna responded, still munching shoho.

‘Give us money for king of the market. Do sharp sharp, we no get time,’ said the other fellow whose lips were as dark as charcoal. Ikenna was sure he smoked weed. He heard weed smokers had black lips and hanging cheeks.

It was the custom in Bush Market that traders paid tax to a leader in charge of affairs in the market. Among the Tivs, he was called Tor Kasua or King of Market. Yet, Ikenna did not understand what they meant or why he had to pay tax to a certain idle fellow called Tor Kasua. Besides, it was too early in the day to pay tax as they had sold little or nothing at all.

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‘Go tell your king say I never sell market. I go pay when I sale’ Ikenna said tightening his face as he chewed away like a goat chewing cud.

‘You are very disrespectful. Don’t you have kings in Igbo land?,’ asked Torkpande, shocked at Ikenna’s boldness. His notoriety in the market had gone unchallenged for decades.

‘I get king for my place but him no dey force people collect money.’

Torkpande was infuriated. He charged towards Ikenna but was restrained by the timely arms of

Akubundu who all the while was away at a neighbouring shop but had to scurry back when he heard repeated shouts.

‘Torkpande, what is the problem? Ikenna, why are you two fighting?’ Akubundu enquired in a frantic bid to calm the situation.

‘Ask your brother, na him start am,’ claimed Torkpande, wagging his finger threateningly at

Ikenna.

‘It’s a lie. You started it!’ Ikenna fired back.

Akubundu ultimately knew what the fight was all about. He reached for his shirt pocket and handed Torkpande 50 Kilashila Shillings note.

‘If your brother na new person for this market, tell am say we no dey take shit. Next time wey him try this kind thing, we no go mercy for am o!’ Torkpande warned as they walked away.

Ikenna was not the fighting type. Back in Agu-Ukpaka, he really never engaged in any fights even with his age mates. Yet, he was not the type that allowed his rights to be trampled upon without a fight. He was prepared to go all the way even though he knew Torpkpande would have given him a bloody nose.

Akubundu had a different view because, from experience, he knew it would be too dangerous fighting a man in his own house. He made this known to Ikenna in a very calm but stern voice.

‘You do not fight a man in his house and expect to win,’ he said in a calm elderly voice. ‘Besides we are here to do business, not to fight.’  This was the dominant view among Igbos in the market, the view that “it is business that brought us here, not fight.” Igbos rarely engaged the Tivs in a fight no matter the height of provocation. It was even joked that an Igbo man would merrily submit himself to be trashed with koboko, provided you would offer him money. This notion was wrong. Indeed, Ikenna laughed it off. He knew Igbos were not weak, they just didn’t mix business with fighting. It was business first and nothing more.

That day turned out to be a bad market day for Ikenna and Akubundu-they sold very little. The sky had opened its mouth and released a heavy downpour that lasted for several hours.

The rain was accompanied by deafening thunders that continued to clap in Ikenna’s ears long after they were gone. Ikenna never liked thunders or the blinding, zig-zag lights that preceded them. They reminded him of several years ago when as a child in Agumkpume, he watched a big udala tree wither after it was struck by thunder and lightning. Lebechi, his mother, had told him that evil people could use thunder and lightning for negative ends. This frightened him.

So, Ikenna was as happy as a lark the moment the rain ceased and it was clear they would leave the market earlier than usual. As it was said, there was nothing one could do about a bad market day; even passing the night in the market wouldn’t help.

So the police escort that brought them in the morning had scheduled a return journey by 4:00 pm which was rather unusual. Yet, no one was surprised-the days were evil such that even uniformed men never threw caution to the wind. At exactly 4:00 pm, the sea of over-loaded pick-up vans set out for Zaka City in a long convoy. Though all the vans had “goods only” inscribed on their rickety bodies, Ikenna saw several men struggling for space with oforbuike bags atop the vans. Ikenna himself perched on a giant three-legged aluminum pot called jogobi. Bush Market-goers saw all these as fun and were unmindful of the risks involved.

‘Traveling on this road is in itself a risk,’ Ikenna thought as Ijele, the driver negotiated the Sai Junction, turned left, and headed for Zaka City. This was the most dangerous aspect of the road. The road was so bad such that vehicles had to craw past it. Yet, this was the den of robbers. Among Bush Market goers, the road was nick-named “Golgota”.

‘Nothing is easy. Ego di na ogwu,’ Ikenna whispered to himself, thinking aloud. Ijele bopped on a crater and Ikenna lost his balance on the jogobi pot. He was crashing down. But for Akubundu who quickly grabbed his shirt and dragged him atop like a sack, it would’ve been a sorry story.

‘What were you thinking?’ Akubundu was furious. Ikenna merely stared into space, panting like a thirsty dog.

‘Just make sure you sit well. If you fall again I won’t help you,’ he said, himself dancing to the rhythmic swerve of the van. The journey on this road was always a rat race. Motorists engaged in what Ikenna thought was a dangerous race in which there were no rules and each driver struggled hard to closely follow the security escort. None wanted to be left behind and none looked out for the other. It was a to-your-tent-oh-Israel kind of chaos. Ikenna did not like this because Ijele’s van, an old, bony 504 Peugeot was weak and had no chance in the game as it trailed at least a kilometer behind the rest. What Ikenna was afraid of soon happened.

‘Stop! Stop there!’ Ikenna’s heart sank into his belly as he heard that voice. He lifted his head slightly and looked at the direction from where it came. He saw a lady pointing a very bright flash-light in their direction. She wore no masks, and was unpretentious about her feminity. She was draped in a skimpy, red gown as if though she was going to a fashion parade.

‘How could a lady have such a throaty voice?’ Ikenna asked himself. But he soon saw a pistol wielding man who stood beside her. Two other men jumped out from the adjourning bushes. The gun-toting gang lined up the road, forming what looked like a human fence. By this time, all other vehicles, including the security escort had gone out of sight.

‘This is it!’ Ikenna whispered to a girl who was seated beside him. She was Mimidoo who always went to Bush Market to sell fried mopane worms and shoho for her mother. People shortened her name to Mimi. She was tall, dark and slender. She had a particularly dark hair that grazed her shoulders. Ikenna had seen her at the market earlier in the day and thought she was very beautiful.

‘I say stop that car!” the voice came again, this time more threatening and forceful. But Ijele refused to stop the van, instead, he kept moving as if he was blind and deaf at the same time. All the passengers in the van became frantic while shouts of “Jesus!” Jesus!” rented the air.

‘We have to jump!’ Ikenna, grabbed Mimi’s tender hand.

‘What? Jump to where?’ She asked frantically.

‘Into the bush!’

‘But……!’ Mimi was still trying to make up her mind when Ikenna stood up, her hand in his, and without thinking, they leapt hand-in-hand into the bush. Gun shots rented the air, and as they both ran deeper into the bush, Ikenna thought himself and Mimi would soon drop dead. Luckily, the rubbers didn’t bother pursuing those who ran into the bush. When Ikenna thought they had gone deep enough into the bush, they stopped running. Ikenna crouched and Mimi rested on his back, such that her milk factory caressed his body. The softness of the silky lump sent Ikenna to the stars. It was the first time he was getting that close to a woman and he thought it was sweet. The moon was bright and stars glowed in their firmaments. Two young people brought together by an ugly occurrence, stood skin-to-skin in the middle of a lonely bush serenaded by cool night breeze that occasionally whistled by. Emotions were bound to run hay-wire. Soon bodies were smooched, lips were locked and Ikenna was not surprised when he found himself jerking and shaking atop Mimi. He felt a gale of excitement as he sowed his seed in Mimi’s equally receptive body. He wrapped himself so tightly around Mimi as they both fell asleep. They woke the next morning and found out that Ijele, the driver was dead.

‘He was shot in the head’ Akubundu told Ikenna as they rode home in the police van that had come to rescue them. Akubundu himself had his face thoroughly panel-beated by the robbers. ‘He died instantly,’ he continued, massaging his cheeks with a handkerchief. ‘I was beaten thoroughly too. Where were you?’

‘I jumped into the bush and I slept there,’ Ikenna responded.

‘With this girl?’

Ikenna did not answer the last question, instead he changed the topic.

‘Are we going to the today?’

‘Yes!’ Akubundu’s response was terse and Ikenna was afraid he suspected something but held his peace.

Read part five HERE

Israel Usulor is a journalist and short story writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael and [email protected]



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