Fiction: I Helped a Boy in Need

Kamarudeen Mustapha

- Kamarudeen Mustapha

The rain threatens to fall. The heaven billows with a rush of wind. The sky looms dark as if it is going to cover us up the next moment and the crowded city spills to the roadside bus stop like a ebbing sea after a deluge of twenty four hours. It is 14:30 pm. Schools have just closed this hot afternoon that has suddenly changed to this moody threatening monster. The roadsides are jam-packed with hordes of students and assorted makes of grown-ups who want to board passenger buses to their various destinations.

It is always hectic in these rush hours when the roadside bus stops overflow with an avalanche of crowds rushing to and fro, but it is usually heavier when it threatens to rain and people are in haste to board buses to avoid being drenched by rain. Passenger buses come and go; we struggle to board them by pushing and tugging. Then the strongest, the most persistent and the most fortunate ones make the entry. And as they attempt to sit down and relax and heave out the accumulated stress in jubilation, the bus conductor announces their fares, already inflated by ten to fifty percent, according to the distance of their destinations and the exploitative whim of the conductors, who know the stampeding passengers have no alternative but to go homes or wherever their needs take them.

As such, destinations that hitherto cost thirty naira have become fifty naira. Those that cost fifty naira have become eighty naira, and those that cost hundred have become one hundred and fifty naira. Conductors are powerful authoritarians, they are touts with fixed jobs, and they rule their fiefdoms with a notion of little gods who can do and undo. Only the drivers have some powers over them, but even these drivers want them to use their powers in these types of situations maximally to maximize their joint profit. They announce new fares arbitrarily without consideration of the passengers' plights and conditions, and without a whiff of courtesy but through harassment and blatant daring. It is the rush hour, factor number one. And the threatening rain, factor number two. Nobody wants the rain to beat him. And nobody can predict its volume and duration. Rains do fall for hours and even days here without a stint. Moreover, rain could be disastrous around here too. Our drainages are often shallow and haphazardly built and kept. Houses are built without respect for the courses of rivulets that are often dry when there is no rain, or the volume of rain is insignificant. But these dry river courses become roaring Mississippis whenever the rains come with any intensity.

“If you can't afford the fare, just go down! Go down! Go down! Me I no send anybody O...” the conductor would declare defiantly. And those that truly can not afford the fare would struggle and fight again to go down. Those who can afford the fare and the strains that go with it would be clambering up amidst renewed tugging and cursing.

Those who eventually make it are happy like they have made the grail. They heave sighs of relief and sit back to begin their own lambasting of the conductor. They called him an oppressor, an exploiter, a devil and a hell bound Shylock as if they hold the keys to hell fires. The conductor himself would not like to be outdone, he would reply with far demeaning epithets. The driver on his own may decide to be civil this time around and try to appease the passengers by looking for whipping boys --- the greedy area boys who extort money at every bus stop from New Garage, through Mokola, Bode, Bere, Oje, Gate, Iwo Road to Olodo. Or the government whose lack of priority makes nothing works. Or the people in government who know nothing except draining the government coffers to grow their private purses. Or the American dollar that is now six hundred naira to just one dollar which invariably makes vehicle spare parts very expensive “since we import everything with dollar and nobody outside the country will take naira for a mean of trade or exchange.”

After the driver has relayed all these ills and put the blame at what were to him the appropriate quarters, a hothead may reply him: “Shut up your mouth, Mr. Driver, the fare to Iwo Road that was forty naira about thirty minutes ago, how come it has become seventy naira now? Is that government's doing or you people's greed and wickedness?”

No conductor allows a passenger to have the last say. He lashes out from where he perches in the bus on the battery compartment. He is so greedy he doesn't allow himself even a seat.

“Look, don't trouble us here, Mr. Know-all. If you can't pay the fare we charge, you are free to go down, and trek to Iwo Road or wherever your ill luck carries you, and see how many sachets of panadol you will swallow tomorrow to ease your pain.”

Another passenger would answer him: “You conductors, and even your drivers, you are all rogues and thieves. If your types were to be in government, you will steal the whole country and hide it in your inner pockets where nobody will see it again. Useless people!”

“Thank you. Just go down and see how your ugly body will dissolve like mud when the rain begins to pelt you.”

Since I'm not the fighting type, I hold my peace and allow those with the fighting genes in them to slug it out among themselves. Thankfully, the rain is no longer threatening. The dark clouds are fast evaporating and a slight yellow curtain has been drawn in the heaven again, hinting that the shining face of the sun would soon reappear. I know the rush hour would soon be over, and it doesn't look like it would rain again. But come rain, come sun, I have my umbrella with me. I only have to hitch it up and cast it overhead. Let its spikes pierce whoever's eye, I don't care. I hiss and draw further away from the throng.

Then I take notice of a boy, no more than twelve. He is a pupil of a junior secondary school, but conspicuously, a poor one. His shirt is torn and patched at various places. His knickers also are tight and ragged and he wears a pair of slippers instead of the brown school sandals others wear. He approaches standing passengers with cowering apprehension: “Please daddy, kindly help me to Iyana Church. I have no transport fare. Please mummy, kindly help me to Iyana Church. I don't have the transport fare ....”

But the “daddies” and the “mummies” only scowl and look away. The boy is never deterred, he has to go home, and going home can only be made possible only after somebody has agreed to carry him on his lap to Iyana Church. So, he keeps on approaching prospective good Samaritans.

“Please daddy, could you help me to Iyana Church. I have no transport fare. “He asked another man.

The man storms at him. “Ehnn? Wetin concern me? I be your papa? Please comot for my face an let me see something." The boy scampers away from him.

The last man he approaches is another pent up frustration, but the needy boy does not seem to discern this. His face is crying and everybody that cares can see that life is not treating him with any iota of kindness. He clutches a big soiled envelope which presumably is filled with application letters and photocopies of his credentials and curriculum vitae. The soles of his old shoes are half eaten due probably to endless trekking through the streets of the hostile city in rains and shines --- glaring indications of veteran job seekers. The man glares at the supplicating boy as if his eyes would drop out of their sunken sockets like two hot embers and burn the boy up like a piece of petrol - drenched rag. Then he shouts and hisses: “Vamoose from my sight now! Rotten contraband!” The boy retreats sharply again and almost steps on my shoes, but I hold and steady him. He glares at me and wriggles himself out of my hands as if I was an electric fish.

“Sorry sir!” he apologizes and retreats sideway again.

“Don't worry.” I half-smile at him. He contemplates me from afar now and quickly deduces I can be friendly. Obviously, my composure is not stern and forbidden. He makes up his mind.

“Daddy, could you help me to Iyana Church.”

I contemplate him too, but with any venom. I admire his quick mind and tenacity. Or perhaps it is no tenacity but desperation to go home. He is a strong boy despite his poverty. He holds my gaze; he sees the prospect of a free ride home. I don't disappoint him either.

“No problem lad. I will help you,” I say.

He half-prostrates. “Thank you sir,” he replies. Then, he embarks on a torrential rendition of prayers for me and my family.

“You will never die young. Your star will continue to shine. You will never lack for good things of life. Your wife and your children will never die prematurely. Your children will become great men and women. They will be known throughout the world for great things.”

“It's okay. Thank you.” I try to put a stop to his marathon round of prayer.

He comes to stand by my side. He watches as passenger buses come and go, and as people struggle to get inside them, and the conductors smiling at the kill.

Some thirty minutes after, the obnoxious rush hour is over. The bus stop and the adjoining roadsides are empty except for the ever trickling -in passengers and the roadside traders making brisk business, unmindful of the illegality of what they do and the risk involved. I had witnessed a scene where the driver of a truck lost the control of his charge due to faulty brakes. It ran over some roadside traders and killed over a dozen of them.

Now, when buses come, there are no more overzealous passengers fighting themselves to board them. The conductors are now the deprived underdogs they should be, no more kings. They have to shout themselves hoarse to get enough passengers to fill their buses. So, when the bus I decide to board comes, and its conductor howling: Olodo! Iyana Church! Olodo! Iyana Church! I step in like a king, no human encumbrance. The transport fare to Olodo has reverted back to seventy naira. There are now too many of them but few passengers. The boy comes in after me. I sit down and he perches on my lap. Other passengers start to come in, intermittently. Ten minutes later, the bus takes off.

Half a kilometer from the bus stop, the boy turns his head up and looks into my eyes. He forces a tortured smile. His teeth are colored and his lips are dry and lacerated. His many lacks are obvious. I wish I can do something to ease his pains, especially in areas of his education -- going to and fro school, pocket money, good uniform and textbooks.

“I have not taken any food today,” he said. It is not a lie; I can see it in his eyes despite his efforts to look cheerful and happy.

“I know," I say to him.” When we get down, I will give you some money to buy food.”

He mumbles a thank you and turns his face away. I find myself thinking about him now. Perhaps his parents are dead. Perhaps they are not dead but divorced. Perhaps they are neither dead nor divorced but unemployed and therefore poor. I will ask him when we alight. I don't like talking in public buses. It is crude. I congratulate myself for not having married at forty. I don't want to give birth to children that would live this wretched because I can't provide for them. Let them stay back in God's heaven and continue enjoying the paradisiacal bliss or look for more deserving parents who have the means to pamper them. It is too hot here. For me I may not marry if things don't change for better or I find means of leaving for Dubai or South Africa or USA.

We are now approaching Iyana Church, we are at a place called Bizengolf, named after a dysfunctional agricultural company, I discovered that the boy is becoming heavier in my hold. I draw him to me and his head lolls sideway. I shake him roughly: Wake up! Wake up! I don't even know his name. I look all about. My heart is palpitating.

We are now at Iyana Church, and the bus has come to a stop. People are rushing down and the boy does not get off my lap to jump down. He can never jump down again. He is mute. He doesn't breathe again. He is dead. Just like that. My God! What can I do?

I do nothing, except telling the suspicious world my gory tale. Nobody pities me. Nobody believes me either. Nobody believes anything here again because people can do and undo any conceivable thing. The thronging tormentors believe I have killed the boy for some money making rituals. There are many ways people use now to use people for rituals. They are very negatively creative and ingenious. I end up spending five years in detention for my tragic kindness. But throughout my period of incarceration, I don't regret what I do: I help a boy in need, I will do it a million times again.

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