Story: Rally Ground

By: Obinna Ozoigbo

Africa_election

A capacity crowd has gathered on my father’s acreage, under the luminous Kano skies. The people have come from far and near to cheer my father. They carry placards and banners high in the air, cardboard sheets and pieces of plywood. Upon them are scrawled words and phrases that, of course, spell out the resoluteness of their allegiances. As I read them, I see the tremendous strength of their unwavering resolve to vote for my father, to vote him into the office of governor. Some of these people perch like sparrows on fine old trees. Their dusty legs dangle from the branches. They want to get a better view of the timbered rostrum in the center of the concourse. Each of the trees, I observe, is crowned with dust-coated leaves that cluster together to form the shape of a dome.

Cigarette smoke and sweat bathe the stifling air. Security men bustle about, armed with Billy clubs and pepper sprays. A plethora of reporters mill around. My father’s posters everywhere. He grins and stares back at you as you regard his photograph, that sleek one. Mother has once told me that more than a million copies are posted on every surface found in the city. Yellow t-shirts cling to the skins of Father’s supporters. Inscribed on them is Danjuma, a Man of the People! My own t-shirt fits me perfectly well; I’ve developed a strong, muscular body—even before I knew it. Flanked by Ado and Buba, my chirpy younger brothers, I fight for my foothold in the jostling crowd. We crane our necks, not caring about the heat as it brutally burns our skins.

The rostrum is festooned with concert-style spotlights that seem to await the night. In a corner rests the paraphernalia of music. The people howl with laughter as Kura, a stand-up comedian, dishes out his jokes. He holds the wireless microphone the way those wild rappers do on TV. Clad in a pair of black chinos and a gabardine jacket worn over his own yellow t-shirt, Kura is blessed with a glib tongue. His stride is like that of a man with unequal legs. His gabardine jacket, I take a critical look, doesn’t really fit well. (But Kura is good. We know him for ribbing prominent personalities in Kano with his usual loquacious flair.) As he lampoons our father’s political opponents with reckless abandon, my brothers and I join in the next gale of laughter . . .

Proudly, I look on as Kura finishes and puts down the microphone. Then another young man scampers unto the rostrum. He has a wispy beard and is wearing blue and faded jeans torn at the knees, that commonplace style in the Western couture. Enthusiastic plaudits begin to come from the thrilled crowd. Clutching the microphone, he begins to effusively extol my father, without mentioning his name yet. My father, he continues, is their party’s one and only flag-bearer, the man of the people . . .

The crowd cheers again. The placards and the banners are raised higher in the air. The din comes down as the people anxiously wait for their man to be called upon.

Ladies and gentlemen,” the young man says, dabbing his steaming brow with a cambric handkerchief, “join me to welcome to the podium the man who is more than qualified to run for governor . . . He’s the man we all love, a monumental man, a family man, a devoted husband to Zahra, a loving father of three healthy boys. We have converged here today to tell him, on behalf of the entire Kano, that he is the people’s choice, our choice.” Pause. “Join me once again to welcome Haji Garba Danjuma!”

The crowd breaks into a frenzy of rapturous applause.

As Father mounts the rostrum, he walks with a certain swagger. I watch as each runnel of perspiration trickles from his forehead and temples, like rivulets. There are gaping patches of vitiligo around his eyes and ears and nose. Even his money, I muse, has failed him in a last-ditch effort to get it treated in America recently. Then, sincerely, I wonder yet again if the people really want a man with such patches as governor.

Father savors the moment, waiting for the excitement to come down. I grin as he begins to wave like a conquering hero. A big smile unfurls around his lips as he flashes his tobacco-stained teeth. Father is bald. His crown shines in the sunlight as though it receives a special daily polish from me and Ado and Buba. He has a spotty white beard. Proudly, he adjusts his white dashiki and smoothes out the ruffles every now and again. The flowing gown is his favorite, lavished with embroidery, that kind that causes his American friend, Bruce Browning, to extol the amazing way Africans apply haberdashery. (It is hard to forget the glee that always lurks in the depths of Browning’s sea-blue eyes as he admires the intricacy of the embroidery—and the many folds of the dashiki.)

Of course, Garba Danjuma is now a household name. Especially in the political circles around the city of Kano. Crossing our arms over our chests, we continue to watch him. He takes the rostrum, then he stands behind a bouquet of microphones. It is a job well done by the press, I think. Father holds his hand up and waits for the crowd to be silent . . .

When the last bit of chatter dies away, he begins his preamble. His raspy voice, I detect, is a shade more excited than usual as he renders his party’s manifesto. To me, it is a rather swanky, grandiloquent speech. It is a meandering journey of words which will certainly make no difference to the lives of the people. (Father says that in politics everything must be swanky. Any aspiring politician should be able to swank, or he’ll end up canvassing for votes wastefully, talking at the top of his voice in abject despair and futility. It’s all part of the democracy game, or so Father maintains.)

I look around, incredulous. The participants are predominantly masculine. A great number of women, I think, are left behind by their husbands. These women, I muse, suffer alone the claustrophobia of family life brought about by the solitude of the home and its grinding monotony. Alone, they suffer the drudgery and neurosis of housekeeping. They are treated like skivvies, deeply buried in obscurity. Like my mother, these hapless women worry eternally, especially about their husbands’ chauvinistic idiosyncrasies.

I look at Ado, then at Buba. “I know that one of the mandates in the manifesto is the emancipation and empowerment of Kano women.”

Perhaps,” Ado says, “Father’s party wants it to be the ultimate bait.”

I turn to look at him. “What do you mean?”

Ado heaves a sigh, obviously taken aback by my question. “They want to get every woman in Kano to vote for him.”

I look away and give a numb shrug.

Mmh, I ponder, looking at nothing in particular. Kano women. All Kano women, Father has once said to the press, must be freed from the yokes and fetters of tradition.

But Father, I know, has not freed my mother from her own yoke and fetters. If he has, Mother should have also been here to give her own support. Father knows how crazy we, his three sons, are about the prospects of his winning, anyway. But he never knows how afraid we are for him; he is contending with the other big guns in much more formidable parties. Well, whatever the case, we have come to support him. He is our father, after all.

I wipe the beads of perspiration off my brow and turn to look at Ado. “Do you really think Dad can make it?”

He shakes his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

Of course, he can make it,” Buba says, regarding the sea of heads. “It seems the whole of Kano is here. We must watch out for even the slightest hint of danger.”

Ado flickers his eyes at Buba. “What are you implying?”

Buba’s features are getting rather despondent. But they relax a bit. “I’m sure the other parties are losing ground,” he says. “It appears their people are shifting allegiances to Dad’s party. Kano loves Dad—and his opponents simply can’t stand it. I have a strong feeling that they want to frustrate all his efforts by all means.”

We still don’t get it.

Buba bores his melancholic eyes into mine and clears his throat to explain. “Dad knows we’re here. But he doesn’t seem to know that his enemies are now on the prowl . . . Seriously, he should be wary of them.”

A thin smile lights up my face. I agree with Buba. But I try to convince him that Dad doesn’t have enemies. “None of the other parties’ candidates see him as a threat.”

They wine and dine together with Dad, those kingpins,” Ado says.

And they visit us, together with their wives and kids,” I say. “We’re like family.”

Buba refuses to be swayed. “Politics knows no friends or family.”

Ado shakes his head. “Dad is the least person they can harm. He’s no match for them at politics, after all. They know that. Everybody knows that.”

They’re better than Dad in so many ways, Buba,” I explain. “They’re far wiser and much more philosophical. They pull crowds that are even larger than this. And they give grander speeches. Why would they want to frustrate or harm him?”

Buba looks me in the eye again. Swiftly, he steers his fraught eyeballs to Ado, and then comes closer to whisper to us, “Whatever. But I have a strong feeling one or two of them are here, lurking in the crowd.”

Ado and I look at each other. We grin lopsidedly and roll our eyeballs in stifled amusement.

To dispel Buba’s fears we give him a reassuring look. And I manage to tell him not to be ridiculous, because nothing bad is going to happen to Father.

I’m afraid,” Buba whimpers, ignoring my assurances, pulling at my trousers like a hungry toddler crying for food at its mother’s feet.

Feeling a twinge of irritation, my bushy eyebrows push together. “Then go back home,” I say, my eyes falling hard on Buba. “Mother needs help in the house, after all—especially in the kitchen. You’re a sissy, anyway.”

We must take Dad out of here . . . immediately,” Buba insists to my chagrin, avoiding my disparaging comments.

Well, Ado and I, in silent indignation, shrug off our little brother’s concern as sheer flitting of the imagination and continue to gawk at our father.

He delivers his speech in grand style as his voice blares from the loudspeakers. Everybody is quiet, absorbed in the long-winded speech, save Buba who has been reduced to a quivering, helpless jellyfish by his weird premonition.

All the big bucks Dad has so far spent on this rally should have been channeled into our university education overseas,” Buba grumbles fitfully.

We heard him but refuse to look at him.

Do you know how much he paid each of those artistes invited by his campaign manager?”

We refuse to budge.

Buba begins to tug at my t-shirt. “We must take Dad out of here!”

Glaring at him, I open my mouth to say something. But no word comes out. Instead, the earth begins to shake vigorously with the air-splitting din of an explosion.

We look around in horror. A horde of startled birds escape the surrounding foliage for dear life. They flap their wings frantically as they look for some hiding place to seek refuge, to perch and perhaps wait for what will happen next. The people begin to run in different directions, trampling the banners and placards on the dirt earth. Dust in the air, everywhere.

Buba is right, I reckon; it is a bomb!

Amid the screams and wails that rent the sweltering air, I order my brothers to run with me—at the top of my lungs.

Ado runs beside me like an athlete. It is like he is engaged in a 100-meter dash. I look back through the clouds of dust, and my heart turns sore with disappointment; Buba is far behind. He runs feebly, trying hard to catch his breath. I curse the dollops of fat underneath his thick skin.

As though the shockwave caused by the terrible blast isn’t enough, explosions from grenades ensue. As these explosives are hurled at the crowd like metallic eggs, the net of explosions closes in on us.

Amid the rumbles and the deafening hullabaloo, we trip and tumble. We run over dead bodies. The crowd tears through the bushes, now running in the same direction. No one is talking. We are a zillion people trying to catch our breaths. I can hear the breaking of twigs and the deafening sounds of the intermittent blasts. In stark horror, I look around as some more people go down. Now grungy, running like Usain Bolt, I begin to blame Allah for making Buba fat. Not much to my surprise, I see Ado overrunning me. Then, wordlessly, I ask Allah why he didn’t create Buba to be as lithe as Ado, or as stout and muscular as I.

I stop, filled with pity for poor Buba. I turn to take a proper look at him. He is bent over, panting like a thirsty bear. Some people run past him. The grenades are exploding here and there. More and more people are going down. They groan and moan. In their death throes.

Buba, run!” I scream, my heart beating itself to death. “You can make it!”

He says nothing. Instead, he keeps panting, still bent over, as though he hasn’t heard my voice.

Buba, run! You just have to!”

As he makes a last-ditch effort to obey my frantic voice, which is almost being drowned by the screaming and wailing of the stampeding crowd, a grenade blasts right beside him. He gives a shrieking yelp and then crumples up in an agonizing heap. Some other people running close to him are also going down. But Buba, I decide, is the only one I have to whisk to safety, away from this crazy racket.

Swiftly, I run to rescue him, crying like an effeminate schoolboy, daring the relentless blasts. “No, Buba! You’re not dead . . . I’ll carry you . . . We’ll make it together . . . Just like Ado.”

Suddenly, the blasts stop. The unseen perpetrators must have scurried away, or so it seems. They are most certainly a bunch of thugs hired by Father’s rivals. It is either they have run out of grenades or they have just had enough of the fun.

But the guttural screams and wails emanating from the casualties—both the living and the dying—continue to rent the air. As I hoist Buba unto my shoulder, like a sack of garri, I look around in horror, willing him to at least make a sound, to assure me that he is alive. Thick black smoke everywhere. The rostrum in flames. Human bodies strewn all over the rally ground. The air is now fetid with blood and gore. I want to vomit. But nothing comes out of my mouth.

Hearing the deafening shrieks of sirens, I turn to look. Ambulances. Police cars. Several of them. They screech to a halt, one after another, trailing clouds of dust, more and more.

I run to the paramedics and plead with them in tears to resuscitate my dying brother. Or to bring him back to life if he is dead already. No, he is not dead. I don’t want to believe Buba is dead. He is breathing. He is alive—or our mother will kill herself. Buba is her pet, barely sixteen. He is the only one that is closest to Mother, the only living thing that brings sunshine to her heart, a heart broken already like shards of pottery by Father’s frequent absences.

One of the paramedics, a burly fellow with a bushy mane, crouches and examines Buba. As he rises, he gives me a hopeless look. Raw, pulsating emotion engulfs me. A sense of doom oppresses me. I look him in the eye, my gaze piercing him, questioning him. He says nothing. Just a sympathetic look, and I quickly understand. What will I say to Mother, what will I say to Ado. I simply cannot face the two of them. Wouldn’t I rather kill myself then?

A reporter approaches me. He asks me a question, thrusting his microphone in my face as if giving me a carrot. But I am too far gone to understand, or even hear, whatever he says. Doesn’t he care that I just lost my brother? I remain mute. Obstinately. I look at him with loathing. He averts his eyes. And then he leaves me alone, alone to mourn my brother’s death.

Red-eyed, sniffling like a lost child, an avalanche of tears rushes to my eyes. As the surging salty liquid scalds my eyes and my cheeks, seeking its way into my open mouth, I turn to look at the rostrum. It has been gutted by fire.

Needless to say, Father is dead too; I can see his dashiki. More and more tears. Soaked with blood, the dashiki is now a filthy rag. It has taken the shape of Father’s ripped body underneath.

I move closer and closer until my feet almost touch the lifeless bulk. Slowly, I lift the dashiki, like someone in a morgue lifting a white sheet off a cadaver. I wince. Allah have mercy! The bomb has blown Father’s brains and intestines out!

Another reporter and one of the policemen approach me. “Are you his son?” They say in unison.

I give two quivering nods and begin to convulse with shock, refusing to be consoled.

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