A TREE OF MISFITS
It’s a good thing my meddling mum took him off his alcoholic father just before that wretch of a human being was sent to jail for raping a minor.
My mother went missing a year later so l never saw him again but that’s another story. Musibau was fifteen but he looked ten, l was seven but l looked ten. People generally looked weird in my neighbourhood, but nobody thought anyone weird, odd maybe, but life was odd wasn’t it?
Musibau was the first to run into Miss John who spoke Queens English and walked like a girl. Everybody called him Miss John, l have no idea why but we were interested in him because we needed to walk through his garden to climb into Baba Olugbo’s compound for the agbalumo tree. Nobody dared walked through Baba Olugbo’s compound to get to that tree. He was a molue transport union leader with countless wives and a distended, often shirtless stomach which he wore with pride. His marijuana thickened growl being scarier than the fast horsewhip he bandied around for clueless children.
I had four older sisters and two younger brothers but l felt closest to Musibau because we had a shared tendency to get into trouble and a common dislike of Nureni. Nureni was crippled by childhood polio and dragged himself around on his muscular torso except when he went to school wearing leg braces and crutches, which made him vulnerable. He did not like vulnerable, we did not like Nureni; he had a caustic tongue and a reptilian ability to wrestle you down then strangle you, he was also genius at maths which was frankly unacceptable.
He was faster moving dragging himself than he was on his crutches. He really hated those crutches but he quite liked Mulika. Mulika was one of the two daughters of Alhaji whose two wives wore hijabs so you couldn’t tell one from the other except of course if you had sense and could see they were not the same size. I of course could; Mulika’s mother was the one with the two Pelé on her cheeks, right above her haughty cheekbones. A stunning woman. I knew because l saw them in the women’s quarters every time l went to play with Mulika, who had inherited her mother’s looks.
We all loved Alhaji because he had the best spread for breaking fasts at Ramadan. It didn’t matter whether you were Christian, Animist or Muslim. You could come to his table for food in ungodly proportions of pleasure, even if you hadn’t been fasting. He used to say only Allah sees the good heart, which was a relief as my good heart was fast averse and glutonous. We all attended Quranic classes because it was fun, then went to church on Sunday for the music and dancing.
My mother didn’t mind us going to Church and Quranic classes, in fact she supplemented all that with occasional visits to seers and herbalists who marked our bodies and washed our heads to cleanse it of the meat of envy. Everyone did that, even that nasty Catholic Mama Uche who acted like she was the Pope’s first cousin.
Miss John always pretended not to see us sneaking through his garden and jumping over Baba Olugbo’s fence to get some agbalumo. A few times, Baba Olugbo would see us and come running belly first, whip flaying but we always out ran him, Nureni in front and Mulika, scarf flapping at the back.
We never got caught until the day Nureni came on those damn crutches which made him slow. Baba Olugbo caught Mulika by her scarf and l tripped over Nureni’s crutches. We knew we were in extended hot soup because once Baba Olugbo finishes whipping us, he’d hand us over to our respective parents, each of whom would apply competing amounts of supplementary punishment. That meant my mother’s hour-long frog jumps, Alhaji’s half day Quranic writing and Nureni’s aunty’s numbing monotonous curses. We didn’t mind the whipping so much, a few lashes, a couple of pain killers and we’d be back trying to get more agbalumo off that tree because once you’ve been whipped, you don’t get whipped again on same day for same offence, even the adults had some sense.
So it was that l laid on my back staring at Baba Olugbo’s protruding belly button with Nureni breathing fast in my ear, dreading the inevitable. Suddenly, out of that suffocating fear, Miss John appeared. Perhaps it was his Queens English or our lucky day but he gently took the whip off Baba Olugbo’s clenched fist and laughingly told him that he had asked us to get some of the ripe agablumo for him seeing as it was abundant. Baba Olugbo did not want to look like a mingy old fart; he was after all a rich man with political ambitions. He grudgingly let us go and l swore to Nureni and Musibau later that l’d seen Miss John wink out of a kohl lined eye.
I remembered this incidence recently when l was asked why I, as a “straight” celebrity, support “gay” rights. First off celebrity is an inaccurate word for sorcery, there’s nothing straight about my mind, and surely all humanity preserving rights is cause for gaiety .
My sense of justice, fairness and rationality which supersedes any latent sense of social propriety is Nigeria born. Justice, equity and fairness are my idea of morality, but maybe l am too odd.
I was a little girl who grew up in the same neighbourhood as Miss John who had no sex, Alhaji who had real faith, Nureni who had no fear and Mama Uche who had too much religion. I saw differences in ethnicity; religion, gender, and sexuality but these differences suffered more mirth than judgement. We lived together mostly harmoniously; periodic disharmony was on account of individual bad behaviour not genetic differences or lifestyle choices.
I miss that Nigeria. I guess in a way l still live it in my head so I have always supported the right of all to dignity regardless of the price of ostracization and it’s nieces. It is not activism, it is acts for life. Is it worth it? I’m afraid l have never had the luxury of absolute self-congratulations or flagellation. What l do know to do is what feels right to a spirit conditioned by my justice minded, meddling mother, a childhood experiencing nuances of complexity and a recognition of the role of individual dignity in collective progressive humanity.
Perhaps the childhood l speak about was a dream, if that is the case then that dream is my vision of the future to come for Nigeria.