‘Zoo-gini? Which one is that?’ Uchechi’s nose was wrinkled as though the mere sound of the course itself added a foul smell to the air.
She did not wait for her daughter’s response before she went on. ‘Why didn’t you fill the doctor I asked you to fill?’
Again, she did not wait.
‘Okay, since you don’t want doctor again, why didn’t you fill engineer, or even lawyer? After all, Mama Nkechi’s second daughter, Uzoma, don’t you know her? She is in one of the universities studying lawyer now. And she is only a few years older than you.’
She turned her eyes round the room, as if to be sure every object in the sitting room was hearing her, bearing witness: the framed photo of Jesus Christ on the wall with one hand on His glittering heart and two fingers of the other hand held up, the wide Toshiba TV with two long, silver arms of antenna forming a V on it, the faded-red armchairs and the centre table covered with a white lace fabric.
Her father sat down on the chair, looking on in silence.
Adaku was more interested in what he had to say. Uchechi, her mother, she knew would always be Uchechi.
Now Uchechi was quiet too, staring at her husband. She has said enough; it was now time for Papa Adaku to buoy her comment by agreeing with her. It wouldn’t change anything because there was almost nothing that could be done now, except, maybe, to ask Adaku to wait for next year to retake JAMB, but his agreeing with her would somehow make her feel better.
But Onochie was taking too long to speak.
‘Papa Adaku, won’t you say something?’
‘Sit down, Ada,’ Mr Onochie said, finally
Ada obeyed immediately. Her father was the exact opposite of her mother. Most times, this made her exceptionally glad, for she’d always known only an Onochie could marry an Uchechi.
‘With my little education,’ her father started, ‘I know the course has to do with animals. Can you tell us more?’
She was staring at her father now, examining his features; his dark and thick brows, his bright-white eyes, straight nose and finely-cut lips, all in a clay-coloured complexion. She admired him.
She stirred. ‘Papa, Zoology is the study of animals. I love biology and Aunty Rose once said it’s a very nice course.’
She felt a twinge of guilt for having lied. Aunty Rose, their Biology teacher in Community, praised her each time she did well in a test or practical. One day, she told her that a biological course would be her best bet in the university. But Aunty Rose never specifically mentioned Zoology.
‘Hey!’ Uchechi clapped her hands. ‘So when others are going about calling themselves mothers of doctors, lawyers and engineers, what will I call myself? Eh, Adaku, ngwa nu, tell me, what? Mother of an animal trainer, onye ozu aturu—shepherd!’
She looked at the other picture of Jesus Christ hanging on the wall opposite her where He was surrounded by white, woolly sheep, as if to be sure she hadn’t upset Him with her comment.
‘Will you be able to get a job with the degree at all?’ her father asked.
‘Yes, Papa. There are many places one with a Zoology degree can find employment.’ She swallowed hard, hoping she hadn’t lied again.
‘Ok. Go inside and celebrate your admission. Everything happens for a reason.’
‘Thank you, Papa.’
She hugged him and took the other way out, as if scared Uchechi’s disappointment might drive her to violence and she’d strike her.
Ada was surprised to see how different the school looked now. It had only been some months that she was here to write the Post-JAMB exam.
The paths have turned overgrown and many new buildings were under construction.
At the Bus Stand, she stopped a plump girl in a blue skirt to ask for direction.
The girl’s skirt seemed to have bundled her hips and thighs into one round body part.
‘Please where can I find First Bank, I need to pay my Acceptance Fee,’ Adaku asked her.
The girl turned excited. ‘Are you a new student too?’ she asked.
Adaku wished she hadn’t asked. ‘Zoology,’ she mumbled out.
‘No. Zoo. Zoo-logy.’
The girl’s eyes flew wide in excited surprise. ‘Serious? Zoology?’ Unlike Adaku, she called Zu-logy and not Zuo-logy. ‘I’m in Zoology too!’
Adaku found something melt in her. She never imagined it’d be that easy to find another Zoology, least of all one that screamed it so boldly.
She asked the girl her name and she said Mary.
As they walked to the bank together, she asked Mary if she is happy to have been given Zoology.
Zoology is a course schools give after all, not one people choose by themselves.
‘My dear, this is the fifth year I’d be writing JAMB,’ Mary said. ‘I am tired.’
Now Ada wished she had asked her something else.
‘The funny thing is that I was given this exact course two years ago, but I was busy pursuing Medicine. Shebi I would have been in 200-level by now.’
Not knowing what to say, Ada shook her head slowly.
She was beginning to understand it now. Zoology is one of the courses people ran away from at first, only to come back to when they are ‘tired.’
Somehow, she found herself suddenly different. Her Zoology had come first and fresh, and she was accepting it in its prime. She hadn’t gone ahead to continue trying the other courses. She has not become tired and desperate.
She managed to twist this feeling into little hope. Because she wasn’t ‘exhausted’ yet, she was going to do something different with her Zoology. Something more energetic.
She and Mary entered the bank.
As they stood in the long line with other newly-admitted students, she wondered why they had to pay to accept an offer of admission they’d written two tests for in the first place.
More like collecting money for the prize win after a strenuous competition.
The cashier was exceptionally nice to her. He was slim and dark. His grey shirt was well ironed, but she thought it was too broad for him. His black tie matched the shirt well too, but she thought it too long.
In her eyes, no other man was, could be, perfect. Only one.
But when the cashier revealed a set of clean white teeth in a cute smile, she saw, for a split second, a little of Obinna in him.
‘Hmm, Zoology,’ he said, looking at her details on the screen. ‘I read Botany.’
She smiled back at him.
Later, she would come to learn about the other equally unattractive cousins of Zoology: Botany and Parasitology. And the diligent wannabe—Microbiology. The proud Biochemistry and the mendicant Science Education.
Glimpsing her smile, the cashier’s broadened, like her smiling back offered him great satisfaction. Perhaps it had.
She has a very cute smile, after all.
He called her zoologist as he handed her her printout. She said thank you.
‘Can I have your number,’ he asked.
She smiled at him and walked away.
Outside the bank, as Mary battled to get reception on her ‘open-and-close’ Bird GSM, it occurred to her that she’d be needing one too.
She wished Obinna had one now. Instead of handwritten letters, they’d hear each other’s voices.
Her father had bought two Trium GSM phones some months ago, for himself and her mother. But Uchechi had rejected hers saying she doesn’t have the time to be saying hello to anybody, that whoever so wanted to speak to her should come to her house.
She called GSM a new form of madness.
So she had given the phone to her, but Adaku never thought about using it. The only person she would have been calling had no number.
Or does he now?
She concluded she was going to start using the phone when she got home. After all, she was going to need it now that she was moving into the hostel.
Ahanna was no longer smiling as he walked into the compound.
At the corridor, Obinna was bent over the round, green stove, turning the rice with a long spoon. He’d made it two days ago. A Jollof rice that came out yellower than intended, due to inadequate use of tomatoes.
They had had to gather everything with them to complete Chief’s money.
‘Welcome,’ he said as Ahanna walked past.
He wanted to ask him if he succeeded in contacting those he’d gone out to call, but Ahanna had disappeared through the door before he could turn again.
Some minutes later, he came into the room with Ahanna’s plate of rice and meat and sachet water.
Ahanna had taken two spoons of the rice when he dropped on the carpet beside him and asked, ‘So were you able to contact them?’
Ahanna hummed, mouth bulged with food.
Obinna concluded the hum meant yes and said ok.
The next morning, Ahanna told him it was now time to go and confirm.
Obinna gave him a curious glance before bending to carry the bag.
At Alaba, they couldn’t locate the shops they’d visited before with Okechukwu.
The shop line looked different, as though people had left and new people came in.
They finally entered a shop. A young man in white singlet and jean trousers rolled up to his knees sat on a plastic chair in the shop fanning himself with newspaper.
Ahanna greeted him and asked him if he knew Mr Kayode, the name of the man that had told them he’d pay double for the powder.
The young man’s eyes went narrow in thought and then he shook his head. ‘There is no Mr Kayode here.’
Ahanna turned to leave, but Obinna held him. In a quiet voice, he asked the man if he knew about any baking powder that sells for N100, 000 per bag.
‘Hundred thousand for baking powder?’ The boy was staring at them with a crooked frown. ‘Can I see the powder?’ he said finally.
Obinna brought out one bag and gave him. He opened the sachet slowly and took a bit of the powder with one finger.
Smelling it, he started to laugh. ‘This is custard na!’
Something hammered Obinna’s chest. ‘Custard, are you sure?’
The boy put his white-stained finger to his nose. ‘Smell it na! Custard! Vanilla flavour!’
He continued to laugh and then started to call people around, to come and see another mugus that had fallen. The most recent mugus.
Obinna bent and carried the bag, but couldn’t find Ahanna again. The people that had gathered stared pitifully at him. The women among them murmured consoling words. Some of the men laughed hard in amusement.
Sweat poured off him. He felt like crying. He prayed the ground would just open up and swallow him.
At home, Ahanna was lying down on the floor, wearing only his boxers. His eyes were wet and reddish.
Obinna dropped the bag by the corner of the wall. He put a small quantity of water in the kettle and lit the stove.
He dissolved a small part of the powder in a stainless bowl. When the water boiled, he held the kettle to the bowl.
He stopped pouring when the mixture started to turn yellow and he confirmed that it was really custard. He took the bowl outside and flung it away with the hot food.
Back in the room, he couldn’t find Ahanna again. ‘Nwanne!’
He ran outside, to the backyard. Ahanna was sitting on the well.
He joined him. He battled with what to say.
But Ahanna started before he could put anything through.
‘Can I tell you?’
Obinna shifted a little closer. ‘I’m listening.’
‘I did not come to Lagos to sell clothes on the ground in Oshodi. I came to this city with five hundred thousand naira.’
Obinna’s eyes came wide. ‘Five hundred thousand?’
Ahanna nodded. ‘Papa sold our land. Chief Ozua is building on it now.’
‘Your land in Agu-oye.’
Ahanna nodded again.
‘So what happened to the money?’
‘I came to Lagos four years ago. On August 2001. Nwoye brought me. He owned a boutique in Ikeja then. By December that same year, my own shop was already up, just next to his.’
Obinna listened with all attention.
‘Sales were to begin the next year. But something awful happened in Lagos on the 27th day of January, 2002.’
‘It was a Sunday. Nwoye and I had just returned from church. It was the time my belief was still strong.’
‘We were about to start eating when we heard the first boom! A great sound like the sky fell to earth.’
Obinna’s brows came together suddenly.
‘The glass shattered. The roof was vibrating. And then there was another. And another. The entire house shook. Nwoye and I ran down. The road was already filled with people. Everyone was screaming, running in all directions. Many were trampled. Many were hit. Then a whole lot of others drowned in the canal.’
Tears flowed down Ahanna’s face now.
A trickle sped down Obinna’s cheek even though he did not yet understand.
‘What was happening?’ he asked.
‘Many claimed it was a foreign attack. Some said it was Bin Laden attacking Nigeria. Others called it end time. It was later that the real truth came out. The bombs they stored in the cantonment caught fire and went off, every single one of them.’
‘Nwoye’s swollen body was among the hundreds pulled out from the Oke-Afa canal the next day. A pregnant woman in our compound was also found. There was a little boy in the compound, his name was Ahmed. He was the one that first called me Papilo. Once, he told me he’d grow to become a great player just like me. That unlike me, he’d pursue his dream. He’d make sure it came true. He would play for the national team and be like Kanu. But that he would always remember me. His first coach. I believed so much in him. I didn’t believe it was his body when I saw it, dark, swollen and devoid of life.’
Ahanna’s shoulders heaved, his entire face soaked with tears. Obinna was crying too.
‘I lost everything. The shop was razed down.’
Obinna took his hand and pressed tightly.
Ahanna looked at him and gave him a slight nod, but his tears did not stop coming.
‘I thought I wasn’t going to survive it.’ He sniffled. ‘But I did. I survived. But this one, brother, I am no longer sure. I am not sure any more.’
Obinna drew closer and Ahanna clung to him, vibrating with tears. Obinna rubbed his back. ‘We will survive,’ he told him. ‘Nwanne, we will survive.’
For those we lost that day…we remember.