Fiction / NIGERIA
Okey Ndibe’s first novel Arrows of Rain is set in the fictional African state of Madia, suffering under its despotic ruler General Isa Palat Bello. When a young woman runs into the sea and drowns, the police question the last man to see her alive, an eccentric vagrant known as Bukuru. His story reveals not just an army beyond control and a disintegrating country but also how his own tragic history is intertwined with the murderous past of Isa Palat Bello. Here, he writes to a journalist, Femi, before being interrogated by the police about the incident.
In your hands now lies the possibility of my salvation or damnation. I live an unprotected life, with nothing to deflect what the world throws at me. No shock absorbers. Everything hits me in the raw, leaves a sore.
It hardly matters that yesterday, through the peephole in my cell, I saw the sun rise and saw it set. Whether I will again behold this simple magic of nature today and tomorrow is a question other men will decide.
I send you this, my story, neither with joy nor triumph but with a sense of relief. There were times, writing it, when I was racked by doubt. How could I make sense of things happening to me today by speaking of things that happened so long ago? How could I prod my tongue to uncoil and learn to speak again?
I can’t even say I fully understand my own motives in writing this story. Is it a desperate way of clinging on to a life that lost its salt many years ago? Or a way of confessing my sins to myself, forgiving myself? Once upon a time I would not have been able to tell this story without first being at peace with my motives. I would have agonized endlessly, the narrative dead in my hand. Alas, I no longer have that luxury. Even if my motives are self-serving I think there is still some good in relating these events. I am not afraid to admit it: the story is flawed, as I am flawed. But it is the story I have to tell.
And yet, I’d like to believe that I have written these words for worthier reasons. I hope I have written not just to save myself, not just to raise my finger and point it at another man (for how could a sinner like me accuse another?), but to examine where my life has intersected with our wider history, how I have touched larger events and been touched in return. I want to reckon up my journey and Madia’s, to calculate the cost of things done and things left undone.
Against the power of the state, I can only throw this story. I know; it is a feeble weapon. But it is the only weapon I have. A time shall come when those who today sit on the heads of others will themselves be called to account.
* * *
Their eyes burrowed into mine, six eyes pretending to seek the truth. The voices I had collected over the many years of solitude crowded my head. They filled me with suspicion and distrust. Then one voice echoed clearly across space and time. ‘Remember,’ it warned, ‘a story never forgives silence. Speech is the mouth’s debt to a story.’
My grandmother had first spoken those words to me, days after we buried my father. A shame I did not understand her then, for I would not today be in this tragic puzzle that becomes messier the harder I try to disentangle its knots.
The trouble began the moment I told the detectives I knew who raped the dead woman. Okoro fished out his notebook and held a pen to it with eager readiness.
‘She was raped, you said,’ he said. ‘How did you know that?’ He began to scribble even before I spoke.
I spoke without reluctance. I narrated the vivid details of the two-hour assault, the woman’s screams that had started just after 4 am, the male voices that tried to hush her up, the kicking and slapping that, finally, silenced her. I told the detectives how the men gathered themselves and went away, leaving the woman behind. How, a short while later, I searched for her through the dawn mist, following her sounds until I discovered where she lay. I told them about her low disgusted groans, her deathly panting. Then how, as I knelt beside her and spoke, she panicked.
‘How were you able to determine the time of the assault?’ Okoro asked.
‘The bell at St Gregory’s. It had just rung four times before I heard the screams. It rang six times just as her attackers were leaving.’
‘You said earlier that you attempted to save her. How did she come to drown?’
‘She panicked when she heard my voice. Then she bolted up and ran into the waves, shrieking all the way.’
‘And what was she saying as she ran?’
‘I couldn’t catch her exact words, but she seemed to be pleading and cursing at the same time.’
‘Can you tell with certainty how many men raped her?’ Lati asked.
‘Not exactly. It was too dark when it all started. But the street lights illuminated the figures as they left. I certainly counted as many as six men. There may have been more, I can’t be certain. The mist was quite thick and I was at a distance. They left in a truck.’
‘A military truck.’
A shocked consternation came over the detectives’ faces. ‘What does that mean?’ Musa snapped.
‘The men were soldiers,’ I said. ‘Members of the vice task force. They wore military fatigues.’
‘What madness!’ Lati blurted out.
‘What are you suggesting?’ Musa asked.
‘The rapists were soldiers,’ I said. ‘As I told you, men of the vice task force.’
‘You can’t accuse soldiers falsely!’ Lati said sternly.
‘You can be shot dead for that!’ chimed Okoro.
In as defiant a tone as I could muster, I asked: ‘Are you saying that the rapists were not soldiers? I saw them. And it was not the first time they raped women here. I even talked to one of their victims. Tay Tay is her name.’
The detectives glowered at me. Suddenly, Lati gave a laugh that was more a menacing flash of his teeth.
‘Let me tell you something, my friend. We are not here to joke around with you. This is New Year’s Day. I would rather be at home with my wife and kids. Or with friends eating and drinking. Instead, I am at work because a woman is dead. Death is our business and we don’t joke with it. You just admitted you were the last person to see the woman alive. That’s a serious issue. If I were you, I would not be joking around. Or making ludicrous statements.’
‘Let me restate the point,’ I said. ‘The men who assaulted this woman were soldiers. I saw their uniforms and their truck. Last night was not the first time they raped women here. As I said, I actually...’
‘Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you!’ growled Okoro. He took a step towards me, as though ready to strike me. I cast him a quick look and said, ‘Isa Palat Bello is also a rapist and murderer.’
The detectives shook with nervous rage. ‘Who are you talking about?’ asked Okoro.
‘The Head of State. He raped a woman I knew. Her name was Iyese. Later he killed her. She, too, was a prostitute.’
Lati’s hand went to the gun secured on his waist. For a moment, my body stiffened. Then it relaxed again, ready for anything. Lati looked about him. The crowd’s presence seemed to irritate him. Slowly, he unclenched his fist.
‘You cannot besmirch His Excellency’s name. We can summarily execute you. Enough of your nonsense. We’re here to do a very serious investigation. Would you describe the drowning as suicide?’
‘No. She probably thought I was one of the soldiers who raped her.
‘Did you know the deceased by name?’
‘Did the deceased know your name?’
‘No, she was a total stranger.’
‘Describe for us in full how she died.’
‘I have already told you. It began with a scream. Then she ran into the waves.’
‘She ran,’ echoed Musa. ‘Would you say you chased her?’
‘Only to save her. I stopped when I realized she was too scared to be saved.’
‘Would you say you aided her death?’ he asked.
‘No. The soldiers did.’
‘Did you hinder it?’
‘How could I? There wasn’t much I could do. I tried to save her. And now I’m helping you to discover what happened to her. That’s all I can do.’
‘I wish to inform you that you’re a suspect in this death. In the name of the state I demand your name.’ A hardness had crept into John Lati’s voice and face.
I said, ‘Secret. Exile. Bubble. Void. I have many names.’ ‘Book him as Mr X,’ Lati ordered his subordinates.
‘That’s used only for unidentified male corpses,’ Musa reminded him.
‘Do as I ask you!’ Lati thundered. His anger was now on the surface, thick.
‘Handcuff the suspect.’
Okoro approached with metal manacles. I then offered up my hands. The handcuffs clanged shut around my wrists. Their steely icyness made me wince.
* * *
Until I found myself in an unmarked police car, handcuffed, I had never really examined the dishevelled life I led as an exile. Indeed, as my years on B Beach stretched out, it had come to seem as if the most important detour in my life had taken place in a vast vacuum, outside the regimen of time and space.
The stink of my body filled the car, repellent even to my nostrils. I remembered a favourite saying of my grandmother’s: ‘The odour that makes a man want to run away from himself carries death.’
The detectives drew up their noses, their lips zipped tight. Gazing at the manacles around my wrists, I suppressed the urge to laugh. ‘What use was there in startling the detectives with the cry of a soul that, looking inward, saw much that was rotten and dead? Would they make sense of the journey that had taken me from the editorial board of a newspaper to their car? Was there a way in the world, or a language, to make them understand that my body had not always given off this repugnant smell?
The voice of my grandmother seemed to rise from deep within me. It again urged me to open up to the detectives, to unburden everything to them. Everything about my past and my present, about Iyese and Tay Tay and the common thread that linked them. Speak to them, her voice persuaded, about the shrieks that rent the air night after night. But they won’t listen, I argued back to this voice. Even so, the voice insisted, describe everything in a way that will defeat their doubts.
Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe is published by Heinemann
It may be ordered on www.bookshop.blackwell.co.uk
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7