Hamzat Salihu and his two sons owned the corner by Mai Borno Street, right in front of the massive Great Buy Mall in Minna. Everybody knew this. Every beggar knew this. If any beggar not in his family ever wished to set up there, they paid royalties to him. That was the way of things. There might not be some auspicious association of beggars in Nigeria or a beggar’s cooperative, but the way uneducated Hamzat ran things in Minna, and as many who copied his model, begging in Minna, for those who cared to observe, almost seemed like a Wall Street enterprise; controlled, decentralized, capitalist by all senses of the word, and quite envious.
Sefullahi and Musa carried on with this tradition after their father passed away. Hamzat had died with a cigarette on his mouth and his hands on the cigarette, under his huge umbrella, at his favourite corner. Every beggar knew his smoke would kill him, so they never ceased to offer him smoke as kola whenever he visited their spot, or smoke as a present whenever they did the visiting. It gave him so much joy. He knew at the back of his mind that they were after his spot and the benefits that came with it. How could a mere beggar be friends with staff in a mall? They give him things for free. Imagine! And he could joke well and play the goje excellently. Where did he learn that? Why was he so entertaining? How could he afford the things he had? And so Hamzat always warned his two sons who were spitting images of him, to ensure nobody took what belonged to them. He made them very aware of the true intentions behind every smoke offer, and how they must run the business when he departed.
Sefullahi’s mind was like a sponge. He assimilated everything his father said to him, and even before Hamzat passed, he had already begun handling things for himself, after his father’s model. Musa was the on and off renegade. Once, he had disappeared for three entire weeks, only to reappear with a broken limb and a goitre on his neck. He hated their condition with passion. He wanted to explore the world, move beyond the inertia that was stretching out arms, entertaining passersby, and feeding on their crumbs for livelihood. Each time he said a word that suggested affluence and adventure, Hamzat would whip him mercilessly by close of day; Hamzat passed, and Sefullahi would starve him and shun him throughout the day whenever Musa acted out. The brothers did not get along for this very reason. The strife festered, and the day Sefullahi met Kazeem Abubakar, Musa saw his opening to rid himself of his insufferably close-minded brother.
Kazeem made Sefullahi feel guilty for all the times he mistreated his brother for being even a little audacious, but was too proud to admit it. Kazeem Abubakar was a low middle class citizen of Minna who shopped at Great Buy regularly and knew Sefullahi’s father and was impressed at how much the son had learnt from the father, and very quickly. Kazeem was a good-natured man who loved the simple things in life and would not hesitate to appreciate genius in cash or in kind. He was Sefullahi’s greatest donor, and eventually his source of salvation from the world of begging.
Kazeem traded in all kinds of herbal products. He had people who would farm them, prepare them, and even imported many from the Far East. He made alarming money from this, and this was due to how well-packaged and intricately thought-out his marketing and promotion campaigns were. His biggest customers were from the south of Nigeria. Sefullahi remembered when he once told him that a man named Ololade Akintimehin had purchased copious amounts of a very expensive, very rare tree herb from India through him. Ololade had specifically requested the variety that had black and silver colourations on them. As the provider, he was required to meet his buyer’s request, so he toured India for a month and eventually found it in a snake charmer’s cottage outside Calcutta. The business was very simple and easy to run, and he needed a dutiful ingenious person to be in charge of the farming outlets in Nigeria. None of his children had agreed to take up his trade, and he found Sefullahi best suited for this.
After little resistance, Sefullahi took him up on his offer. The day he intended leaving the corner in front of Great Buy, Musa was not to be seen. He cursed, but then, he would not let this opportunity pass him by. That day, after three decades of hearty jokes and danceable music, Hamzat Salihu’s corner was left unoccupied, and open to the caprices of all who coveted it.
In the five years Sefullahi worked for Kazeem, he was awarded employee of the year for the last two, and everyone rejoiced with him, including Kazeem’s sons Rukayatu and Raheem, who from day one, accorded him with such venom that Sefullahi eventually decided to stay away from them to avoid being unknowingly done in. Rufiyat, on the other hand, begun with vile towards him, or he thought so, until the day she startled him with a kiss that he immediately reciprocated. She had always been instantly attracted to him, she eventually confessed, and being a famous former beggar, this did not sit well with her brothers, and she was very ashamed of herself, and this was the reason for her hostile attitude. When she couldn’t keep it up anymore, she decided to give him a shot. Sefullahi’s stars grew in number every day. He had the job, he got the girl. What more could he ask for?
Sefullahi regularly worried about Musa the first two years away, and each time he picked up the courage to go close to Great Buy, Musa was never around. There was a new face on a new mat on his former spot, every time. Most he knew, but they never recognized him enough to say hi, or maybe they did and hid it. He played with the higher-ups now, didn’t he? Great Buy was eventually demolished because they had become insolvent due to some litigations levied against them by a certain caucus of politicians. It was owned by a commissioner in Niger State who had critical acclaim among the masses for a myriad reasons. Granted, he had enemies in their numbers, and they finally destroyed him by taking away one of the greatest joys of Minna, Great Buy. They hurt the commissioner; but they also hurt the beggars who begged in front of his store; and most especially, Sefullahi. There was no way to track Musa anymore. He gave up his search.
When Sefullahi acknowledged that the family he should have held tenaciously was Hamzat’s and not Kazeem’s was when he was publicly ostracized and stripped from running the herbs business by Rukayatu and Raheem. He took his wife, Rufiyat with him and never looked back. Rufiyat begged her brothers. Sefullahi rebuked her. They would do fine on their own. They would start their own business. Rufiyat doubted that, immensely. Since losing her father in the Abacha vs. Shonekan hostilities, her husband developed a foreign and ugly taste for overdoing things and basking in the false understanding that he was the spendthrift who would never stop spending. Cutting off regular pay from such a man is cause for calamitous struggles. Rufiyat was an accountancy major, and she was certain of this. Yet, she ran, because she must run with her husband, and with her five-year-old Tawfiq, because she loved them, and Tawfiq must grow up with a father.
She was right. In three years, Sefullahi had squandered everything. He could never start a business, he didn’t know exactly how, and refused to go into petty trade. He would not let his wife start one either. He was the man of the house, it was his duty. He foiled all of Rufiyat’s efforts to save money for Tawfiq’s secondary school. He would search the house and find the money, and when she relied on neighbours to hide them, he would track and pinpoint those neighbours. He picked up smoking. And then gambling. He said this bet today will make them millions. Then this one another day will add a million to that. One day Rufiyat saw his fellow gambler perform his cheat against her husband and she let it be, to teach him a lesson when he got home. He did not learn the lesson. He labelled his wife a saboteur, and what was marital irritation became marital hatred. Rufiyat loved Tawfiq, so she secretly began making friends in the local market. She got a storefront and loaded it with ginger, pepper, onions, and tomatoes in massive quantities. Sefullahi would not find out. His new wenches would make sure of that. Sefullahi’s drunken wandering blew him to Mai Borno Street one day, and he found Musa. Musa was in their father’s corner. He was so happy. He bought Musa a pack of cigarettes and begged to be brothers again and continue the family business. Musa did not laugh at his Icarian demise. Musa did not laugh, period. He maintained a straight face and when Sefullahi got irate, Musa asked him to leave. “I do not know you,” Musa said to his face. “Take your cigarettes with you. I heard it killed a popular man who sat here. It will kill you too.”
Sefullahi died two months later. No, not out of lung failure or some such, although his was deplorably damaged. He had stayed away from home for thirty entire days, and reports had it that for those thirty days, all he did was walk, under the sun and in the rain, until the severe weathers of Minna gave him a mercy death.
Sefullahi’s ghost haunted Rufiyat’s business in ways that made her cry every other day. The people said, “is she not his wife?” “was she not Alhaji Abubakar’s daughter?” “this kind love” “me, I’m not buying o. Let’s look for Mama Nkechi’s shop.” And like that, the ginger left the store front, then the pepper, and the tomatoes, and eventually Rufiyat found herself stooping, taking Tawfiq out of JSS2 – a move she cried and starved herself about for three days straight – and explaining to him how to go about with a bowl in his hands, some rags on his person, and a smile on his face.
They started together, and obviously, starting from Mai Borno Street. Musa did not acknowledge them as in-laws. He never knew them. But he was not so cold-hearted as to throw them away. He secured them a corner at an adjoining street in front of a supermarket. His own corner had become the front of large metal-works factory- the structure that replaced Great Buy. Business started slow for mother and son, and son got a hang of the tricks of the trade too quickly for Rufiyat’s comfort. He grew less bulky until he was near-wiry. His servility became his trademark. Rufiyat would turn her face away from him certain times to cry or kick at something. Her boy had changed. Curse you, Sefullahi!
A certain onions trader named Emeka who was really friendly to Rufiyat back in Kananan Zungeru met her one day in her corner. He had pity on her, and encouraged her to meet him, and he’ll help her with some onions. She did not hesitate. Tawfiq refused to follow. He posited diversification (his specific words were “division of labour”) as reason; he would beg, mother would trade. And that became the way.
Tawfiq refused the beg-at-one-spot model. He chased the business where it most sprouted. Nomadic in all respects, by the clock of a half-year, he could pull response and engagement analysis from practically every kind of begging corner in Minna, and ruling off supermarket fronts, busy street corners, bus parks, and roundabouts, he concluded that the best place to be in was where the one-percents of the city played. It was bold; he had never heard of anyone who had done it before. Rome was not built in a day. Tawfiq set up shop for the first time in his begging career in front of the Government House.
The truth was that he was driven out from all the corners he tried for one reason or the other, and it was as if he was gaining some sort of notoriety, because the drama for each driving out was more intense than the previous. That of the Government House was, however, the least dramatic, and the most eye-opening– call it the errant valuable in his analysis, with good reason. For the three nights he gambled auspiciousness in front of the elegant whites of the seat of government in the Niger State capital, watching immaculately-dressed men and women laugh their ways around the premises, motorcade their ways in and out, and play around with their beefy toy police guards, he was totally ignored. No, he wasn’t. He was being carefully observed by security, maybe pitied even, but never once engaged with. The night of his driving out, Tawfiq who had become wary of his judgment of the difference between good and bad opportunities, was given hush money and escorted away by one security detail, and with pin-point warning, garnished with a generic smile and shocking brevity, was told never to set foot in that estate ever again. He had begun putting two and two together, and may become the trumpet that announces the political savagery of these men of affluence through careful observation, or something of that sort, they might have feared. Tawfiq cared little what the one-percenters do. They were the one-percenters after all; they always do something.
Tawfiq made, in just that night, more than a hundred times the average money he makes in a week. His opportunity-o-meter wasn’t broken after all. It required patience, nurturing. That all-too-familiar immediate push to frolic when certain levels of comfort greets one caressed his skin, and despite his estranged mother’s voice in his head, despite his own once decision to never be like that again a year after he had separated from her, Tawfiq caressed back.
He didn’t have gambling, or drinking, or whoring buddies as he used to anymore, so Tawfiq chose to follow the wind wherever it may, and four days after the Government House incident, he found himself in front of Kananan Zungeru. He could spot Rufiyat, and at a point, he knew she could see him. He confirmed this by observing that she consciously avoided bumping into him as much as he did her. The day the dreaded close-call almost occurred, he met Amara for the first time. It almost happened because of her, this light-skinned light-eyed pointy-nosed Nubian beauty who quarrelled in Igbo Language with a bearded men who resembled her, hesitant to pick up a basket of onions, and stretching out arms to him in what seemed to be a fuming rage. A sudden urge to be her knight in shining armour came over him, and whether it was the intoxication of windfall or the returning hope of tasting forgotten pleasures driving him, what Tawfiq Salihu did was walk up to Amara, ask what the matter was, petition her brother to let her off of hawking for that day, offering to cover her expenses for the day if she would oblige him and walk with him. “How do you know Amara?” the bearded man asked, and Tawfiq learnt her name. Of course, he did not know her, and was saved from explaining his burst of courage when Rufiyat’s unmistakable voice carried up to where the three of them stood. The desire to escape the awkwardness with his estranged mother far outweighed his want of a beautiful innocent to plunder, and he bolted. Fourteen days of the next two weeks saw Tawfiq giving out money to any and all stranger who he stopped and requested they talked Amara into coming over to the front of the market and meeting him. He could not go himself. His mother’s storefront was right beside the one Amara picked onions to hawk.
When Tawfiq realised he had given away all his hush money and could not dilly-dally around love fantasises anymore, he ran to the only remaining place he imagined he would not be driven out from or be made to leave due to an inability to attain carnal goals. The Central Mosque was majestic, ornate, and like every other one, a most holy ground. He dared not pollute it with his lowly person, so he chose the backyard of the Imam’s quarters, right outside the gate. A certain day came, and Tawfiq nearly ran to a man who starkly resembled his uncle Raheem, to greet him, and suppose, end his days of begging by asking to be called back into Kazeem Abubakar’s household. Truly, it was Raheem he saw, and he was willing to prostrate and request reacceptance under any condition because Raheem was the one who opposed the decision to send his father away, as much as he did not like him. Tawfiq saw him from afar, and drawing nearer, was equally pleased and startled to find that Raheem had made it to the top of his religious ladder; he was the Chief Imam. Approaching became harder, and the day courage – this human condition that he always has to scurry and scramble for – graced him, he returned to his post sorely heartbroken and angry – first at Raheem, for feigning an utter lack of knowledge of who he was, then at himself, for believing Raheem was different from Rukayatu. He left the front of the mosque the next day. It was a holy ground; he had harboured ill thoughts against Allah’s anointed; he must leave it, and not stain it.
Tawfiq wandered. Aim to life became a mystery day after day. He was unwanted by society, scorned by family, deprived by beauty, and denied by kin. All the father-son parallels had been distinctly drawn, and at one point, he chose his father’s fate, and decided to keep walking. One day, in front of a church, his body gave in to the crushing fatigue. As he hunkered down and passed into a much-craved slumber, he was filled with a distorted admiration for Sefullahi, his father; he admired such power behind his resolve that had overcome being’s natural needs of sleep, shelter, and food. He was awoken by indistinct chatter, approaching footsteps and loud sounds of chinks. At full attention, he was thrown aback and nearly off-balance by three hands that dropped one coin each in the begging bowl between both his feet. The hands were owned by three middle-aged women who wore Yoruba traditional outfits, with massive gele as headgear, smiling fullheartedly, chuckling at his startle, and walking into the building behind him. A cross at the highest point of the round building, blue roof, stained-glass windows, paved floors, little or no cars around, solemn walks, it was a church! What, on earth, had brought him to a church!?
As Tawfiq pondered this, more hands kept dropping coins into his bowl. The air smelled good, and the day was slightly humid. He then realized that every single individual, young or old, dropped a coin – just one coin – into his bowl before entering the gated compound of the church. He laughed at this. He wasn’t sure what he was laughing at. It was a church. He was moslem. He was a beggar. They gave to beggars. They gave ordinately. Everyone. He must live, survive. He was far too young to walk into the sunset. They looked nice. The air smelled nice. They all gave, one coin, the same coin, two naira coins, each one of them. If there were a hundred in service that day, he’ll be an assured two hundred naira richer by close of service. That was bread for the day. How about tomorrow? Tawfiq searched for the church signboard – every church in Nigeria has one, and they were always larger-than-life in size, with the picture of the pastor beside his wife, they always had a wife, it was always a ‘ministry’, they always advertised days and times of service, it was a thing, protestant or orthodox – and he saw it; there was service every day, at specific times; the pastor and his wife’s images smiled at him. He smiled, and then laughed back, fullheartedly, like his church members. The Bible Way Church. Tawfiq’s salvation. Who knew?
Maybe they pitied his sleeping form, so he pretended to go back to sleep. That was not it. The next day, asleep or not, they all walked in to church, paying their coin respects to him. The same coin. By Day Four, Tawfiq began wondering where, and how, they all possessed this same coin. Was it shared in the church? Was that not a bank’s job? Were they instructed to give? The day he found out the truth to the giving, he got sick to his stomach, and was about randomly attacking any of them who neared him again. He was placated by two things– one was the realisation that, whether he liked it or not, the beggar’s choice was to beg; they were, by and by, his only source of bread. The other thing that quelled him was the appearance of one woman, middle-aged too but with good features, who dropped the first note in his bowl since two months of begging there. She would repeat that action every day from that day, and even after being audibly reprimanded by the same member who helped him understand the mystery behind the two naira coins, she, this new woman, still continued in her kind way of putting the notes, sometimes twenty naira, sometimes fifty, and at times, patting Tawfiq’s staff. He was reminded of his mother and her warmth.
The mystery behind the two naira coins was easy – that was money introduced by the Nigerian government in a bid to appear to operate currency that resembled those used by countries who fare better; they had zero street value, and people began getting rid of them as quickly as they went into circulation; the government’s ruse to excite Nigerian masses with a quipping for money affairs in the country. It was money given to beggars, individuals who had zero street value, who people wanted to get rid of quickly, and was a ruse to attract non-believing beggars to rid themselves of their unbelief and apostasy and be baptised, and then receive true help from the church’s coffers.
Tawfiq hated it, but he had to stay. And again, he would not grant them the satisfaction of staying away. If they truly wanted him out, they would have to physically send him out and figure out a way to ban him from ever returning. Else, he was there to stay. But the more he stayed, the angrier he got. It was like willingly swallowing poison, willingly maiming himself. The fact that it also robbed him time for Friday Juma’at at his local mosque burned with the fire of a hundred dragons in his soul. It was as if, for his sake, they had intentionally fixed meetings at that exact time for prayers. He had promised himself not to listen to their snide commentary and mocking whispers and graciously accept his assured coins until they ran out and be forced to pursue him physically or continue with their indirectness with a higher currency. The latter might have quelled his rage a jot and made him forget the significance of the coins that came before, had they had the means to stop reproducing those damned bronze things. But they always produced it, and he always listened. And burned inside. And then, the day came where he learnt where to direct his inferno, how to make good use of it. A pamphlet in Levantine Arabic was dropped on his palm by a mysterious passerby who was wrapped intricately in a black turban.
That was boldly written at the front of the paper. The rest of the lettering was in a hard cursive, inked-in, and so tiny it took bringing it his nose to see clearly what was written. A troop of churchgoers looked curiously at him. He had learned how to read at his local mosque. Writing was a different story. The Right Hand. “If you are tired of the oppression of the infidels, there is righteousness coming.” Directions to a meeting place. “Will you sit back and curse at your left hand, or will you stand and follow, and join up with the right?” “Burn this paper after you have made your choice.” Whomever dropped that paper on him, Tawfiq noted, must have been watching him closely, and was sure he was angry enough to understand the need for some righteousness.
The directions themselves were extremely cryptic for the simple-minded – probably a measure to ensure that if candidate assessment was poorly carried out and paper was not burned, nobody could trace The Right Hand – and it took several attempts for several Saturdays for Tawfiq to trace out and find the meeting place. He, without-second-thought, sacrificed his weekend earnings for this. He became part of a mission, part of a higher calling. He bought his hooded cloak so that he could get accepted. He learned to move without being seen. He learned to blend, to redirect anger, to parry rage into a kettle and smile instead, to unleash the contents of that kettle as he washed his feet and hands and face, and held and trained with arms and armaments that fated the righteousness he will be instrumental in delivering. He became good with an A-K. He ensured Hakeem would not spot him during training whenever he came around, with or without his father, his uncle whom Alyad Alyumnaa had made him forgive in his heart, and joined intents with. Hakeem seeing him would have jeopardized his chances of following through his new path.
The culmination of his new path bloomed like a regular sunrise and fresh sunflower aromas. Tawfiq yawned awake. He savoured it. He looked around him and begun packing up his things. The Friday before would be the last he misses prayers. These church people would be so glad, and gloat that their method worked. That they got rid of him. Only if they understood the shape and form of comeuppance, they would not smile so much as they did that morning, heading to their Saturday morning 8am worship meetings. It was 8:30, and he had not begun hearing songs yet. That was strange. If there was anything he liked about the church, it was the fact that they kept to time. Tawfiq again looked at the bandless wristwatch head his cobbler friend gifted him on his birthday; it was 8:40. No songs yet. Five minutes later, the songs begun. It was Folake singing. Folake, who unknowingly and inadvertently helped him understand the meaning of the two naira coins; Folake, whose beggar-man commentary ran most loquacious. Her name was announced to lead worship that morning through the speakers. Tawfiq spotted his one joy of that ministry of Christians. At least she could drop money he would use to take public transport to The Right Hand that day, instead of trekking.
He never got her name. She was quiet, and comely for someone her age. She walked up, and up to him, and then past him. Tawfiq was dismayed, and then angry. She always dropped notes. She had finally caved in to the reprimands, hadn’t she? She stopped a little way past, picked up her phone, stared at it intently. She looked aghast. He wondered why. Does he call to her? No. No courage to. She noticed him and jumped a little. Maybe she would remember and drop the money. She did not smile. She wore a guilty look. She quickly hit the phone screen with her fingers a little too hardly than comfortable, and quickly dropped it into her regular black purse. She pulled out a thick black scarf from the purse, wrapped it around her neck, and patted the left side of her neck more times than necessary. She clicked her heels on the stone-paved floor and in she marched into the church.
Curse her. Curse them all. Tawfiq walked with haste, cursing, and hating, and hunting with his eyes more things to curse and hate. He revved himself up, bumping into a well-wrapped woman dressed like a hajia. He surprised himself by not apologising. Something inside him needed orgasm that day. Something inside him sought culmination, a finishing of anguish and rejection, and it focused him. He almost didn’t apologise when he bumped into the next person on GSW Street. The fact that it was Amara drove words to his mouth, and he wondered, if, maybe, for one last time, if rejection was not going to be the answer. He was willing to return to that love-struck beggar by Kananan Zungeru for the briefest of moments, maybe wife her up so that she can join his cause; a united front; passion, love, and righteousness.
Yet again, that concept, that word, reared its ugly head, and stabbed him straight through. Church. He bled rejection. His wounds would not go to waste, whether it was a one-trip mission that day, or whether he will revel at sunset.
Tawfiq darted away, in ire, and into the narrow alley that led to Hakeem.