I say to all those leaders, do not look the other way. Do not hesitate… It is within your power to avoid a genocide of humanity. – Nelson Mandela.
All eyes were on him. The safety of half the boys on the field depended on him making the right decision. Tahir found himself breathing hard. His oversized Sadio Mane jersey had darkened with perspiration. He walked to the penalty spot with as much serenity as he could muster in spite of his inner turmoil. From the corner of his eyes, he could see Farouk, the umpire of the game, fidgeting. Tahir couldn’t help feeling pity for the boy, the big bad boys will kill him first if they found out how he had been helping Tahir and his friends.
I will score… We must not lose.
Tahir had not felt as much fear as he felt now since that dreadful evening when his village was burnt down by a large band of Fulani herdsmen. The fear of being beaten to death and thrown in a pit by the big indigene boys for cheating was only rivalled in his mind by the depressing thoughts of that fateful night characterised by the desolate screams of his mother as Father was hacked into two by one of the herdsmen, the acrid smell of burning huts and the wailing of children as their mothers were being ravished before their eyes.
Tahir felt a strange pressure in his bowels. What was now a moment of life and death was a product of a hunger triggered proposal. Tahir and some of his classmates in Goki Junior High School usually sneak out of the primary school where the state government had camped them, in order to scavenge for food because the daily food rations were never enough, though some time ago they heard on radio the huge sums apportioned for feeding in their IDP camp.
During one of their daily food hunt, Tahir and his friends had chanced on some older, rascally boys playing football on a school field two streets away from their camp. Ben, one of Tahir’s friends had instantly come up with the idea of challenging the big boys to a short game of twenty minutes where both sides would stake N500 and the winner will take all the money.
“So you have money and we have been hungry since yesterday?” Kabir, another boy, had said.
“Use that big head on your neck for once. We won’t bet anything. We will beg the ref to let us play without staking. We will give him N100 if we win.”
“And if we lose? I know these boys o, they will kill us.”
“Why are you talking like this?” Ben had asked. “Are you not hungry?”
“Look, we can’t lose,” Tahir had chipped in. “I have been watching them since. They are playing rubbish.”
The big boys had accepted the challenge, and in the ensuing game, Tahir’s team, buoyed by the pressing need to feed their growling bellies, had won by three goals.
“Nice one boy,” Ali, the captain of their opponents, had said to Tahir afterwards with his breath reeking strongly of weed. “Tomorrow, we will play again.”
They played again the second day and Tahir’s team won again, though by a closer margin. Now, it was the third time of their meeting, the big boys were winning by a goal to nil and Tahir has the chance to equalize from the penalty spot with a minute to the end of the game.
“Play the ball boy!” Ali yelled at him. “Don’t waste our time.”
Tahir took a deep sigh and struck the battered leather ball hard with the inside of his left foot. The ball curled beyond Shehu, the towering opponent goalkeeper, looking certain to nestle in the top corner, but in the last moment, the ball swerved a little to the right and struck the wooden goalpost. It bounced out of play instantly.
Tahir did not wait for what would follow, he quickly dashed into the adjoining bush. If the other boys were wise, they would do the same rather than attempt to plead the mercy of the big boys. As Tahir sped through the bush of bamboo trees, he wondered if he should go home or not. If the big boys could get hold of Ben or one of the other boys, they would be able to trace him to the camp. But there were soldiers in the their camp, tough looking men with fine guns. They won’t let the big boys hurt him.
He arrived at the small primary school that served as his temperary home panting heavily like a dog. The putrid smell of festering human wastes welcomed him. He clamped a hand on his nose as he pushed through the mass of people on the open field. Few people stayed in their tents by this time of the day because of heat. Behind the stretch of tents and shanties where the refugees pass their nights, Tahir looked with reverence at the relative comfort of the classroom blocks where soldiers and other care givers slept. One day I will be a soldier too, he thought, I will defend the helpless.
He jogged to the small tent he shared with his mother and two years old sister. The tarpaulin was riddled with holes through which mosquitoes swarmed in at night, but it didn’t matter much. He had learnt to sleep through the massive buzzing and biting.
Tahir made a knocking sound with his mouth as his mother had taught him since they no longer had a door.
“Who is it?” His mother asked.
“It’s me, mama.”
“Tahir, wait outside.”
It was odd. His mother had never asked him to wait. Perhaps she wasn’t properly dressed.
She came out a minute later in a shabby black khimar. “You are back early. Did you get food?”
“No, mama,” he replied as he ambled towards the threshold.
In the moment he tried to sweep aside the part of the tarpaulin that covered their entrance, his mother held him back with a firm grip on the shoulder. “Tahir, why don’t you go and play with your friends?”
As young as he was, he could hear the tremor in his mother’s voice and now that he turned to look at her, he clearly saw fear in her eyes. Definitely, she was hiding something inside the tent. With all the strength he could muster, he broke free of his mother’s hold and dashed into the tent. Then he saw the reason behind his mother’s antics.
A big man clad in nothing but a boxer shorts that was too tight for him sat on one of the stools in the tent with his back turned to the entrance. He held a bottle of ponche in one hand, while the other hand was busy tickling little Aisha who was wriggling on the mat beside him. Surely, the man was not Baba; he had fallen that night when blood flowed in Goki. He wasn’t Uncle Kabir; he died of cholera last month in the camp. He was a soldier, Tahir deduced from the camouflage outfit that was folded in a pile beside an empty bottle next to him. Hot rage unparalleled surged through Tahir and he did the first thing that came to his mind.
The big soldier, alerted by nearing footsteps and an angry yell, turned in time to see Tahir running at him with a kitchen knife. In a fit of drunken panic, he reached for his pistol and fired.
Tahir’s legs buckled as the bullet ripped the flesh of his left thigh. A gasp escaped his lips as the hot white pain that coursed through the length of his leg threw him to the ground. In the background of his mother’s cry for help, he heard a voice in his head whispering to him that he will die. He didn’t shake the thought away. At least, he will be safe from the big bad boys, safe from raiding herdsmen who left nothing but carnage in their wake, safe from bad soldiers who sleep with helpless women and shoot their sons. He will be safe—forever.