Saturday, November 20, 2010

Silent witness

I wrote this following an excursion into the streets of Abuja on the day after former military dictator Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida declared he would run for the presidency.

He could not have been more than twelve. He moved from car to car hawking chewing gum and breath mints. He would scan the faces inside looking for that telltale linger that signalled interest in his wares. Then he would wait by the window or call out to his wares, his gaze already looking for the next potential sale. If the wait proved too long or if he was dismissed by a subtle shake of the head, he would move on.

It seemed he was the one selling bottled groundnuts at the junction by the filling station, or hawking cheap chocolates at the park. He was among the wheelbarrow boys in the market zigzagging through the throngs. He was the conductor hanging out of the commercial bus, whose eyes were too old for his face, shouting himself hoarse. The mechanic’s apprentice rolling a spare car tire across the road and the plumber’s boy who held the tool bag while his master unclogged those pipes.

He was also the sun-darkened schoolboy in a tattered uniform, dirty grey socks and battered Cortina shoes so often repaired, they were falling apart as he walked. He was the goalkeeper in a stained singlet and oversize shorts playing football in the field opposite the police station. He was one of the eternal young men gathered under the mango tree in front of the gate of an elaborate house.

He has been the silent witness to our history and the victim of our every opportunity lost to greed and corruption. Dressed in the castoffs of the West, he was among the crowd of boys who chased after the first white man who came into the village on a bicycle. He came out to admire the town’s first car. He gathered in the village square when the big man brought out that television and allowed everyone to watch under the tree. During the war, he fought in our armies, wearing a uniform too big for his frame and carrying a weapon too heavy for him to bear.

As he wanders among the detritus left behind by the latest political rally, hawking his goods, cleaning car windows, leading you briefly wonder what the future will hold for him.

In a thousand incarnations he enters our lives and after each brief encounter he returns to that blank space in our minds. When he goes, he takes with him his name and his story. He is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s cousin. And tomorrow, he will be someone’s father.

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