Winter 2008
Playing Games 
by Anietie Isong
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The leader of our union - the Ibok Women Progressive Association - imposed on herself the task of praying before and after our meetings. But her prayers were never short. Last gathering she prayed for so long that by the time she finished everyone had fallen asleep. Even Mama Victor, who was a deaconess in St. Saviour’s Church, succumbed. Three weeks ago, when I led the praying, the whole plea lasted just thirty seconds. Our leader chided me afterwards. She took me aside and opened her bible (she always had a small one in her handbag) to the place where Paul asked Christians to pray without ceasing. 
After the day’s meeting we peddled gossip. 
“Edima, did you hear that Barrister Okon has imported a brand new Tokunbo car from Germany?” 
“I heard that the councilor is going to the US next week.” 
“Architect Ebong is sending his first daughter to study in Spain.” 
“Where did you hear that?” 
“Ah, do you doubt me? Have you forgotten that I am the CNN of this community?” 

Nene, my cousin, called the gossip session the real meeting. I watched her closely as she mingled with the other women. I noticed for the first time how bony her hand was, how all the veins that ought to have been covered with healthy flesh stood out like the drawing of a school child. But Nene was not an old woman. It was too much hard work that had aged her. As the bread winner, she supported her family with sales of akara and other petty goods. As in my own case, her husband had left her for the world beyond. 

“Are you all right?” I asked Nene after she had disentangled herself from the other women and we were making our way home. 

“I am all right,” she said, laughing. 

But there was something in the sound, something hidden, which troubled me. Near the village square Nene let it out: “I think Nsima has joined the Ibok Youth Movement.” 

She said it quickly, as though the words scalded her tongue, spat the words out as one would spit out hot yam. And she did not look at me. I wanted to slap her hard and tell her to stop playing games. Instead, I told her to go and wash her bad mouth with soap. My son was only thirteen years old. He could not possibly have joined the Ibok Youth Movement, the dreaded militant group that terrorized oil workers. 

At home, I found refuge in the easy chair that had been worn smooth by many years of naked bottoms. The yard was quiet. I shut my eyes. Perhaps, my cousin was right after all. Why hadn’t I suspected? Those times Nsima said he went for football practice, why hadn’t I checked it out with his coach? I sighed and struggled to my feet, then stumbled into my tiny kitchen to prepare a meal for him. 

When he came home I stood and watched the garri travel from his hand to his mouth. I watched and felt a lump in my throat.  My only, beloved son. The only thing that mattered to me. I felt a sudden desire to build a wall around him, to protect him from the terrors of this country. 

“I am really enjoying the soup,” he said. 

It was bitter-leaf soup. I had put in just the amount of red pepper he liked. 

After lunch I commenced my interrogation. He didn’t try to deny it. He just looked up at me and sighed. 

“Why, Nsima? Why have you joined the Movement? You want to send me to an early grave, eh?” 

As he stared back I gasped at the sudden transformation I saw in him. The gentleness was gone from his eyes. In its stead was stony hardness. 

“Oh, I am finished-o!” I screamed. 

“Mama, why are you shouting?” His voice was heavy with disdain. “Please do not shout. I do not like it.” 

“I will shout! I will shout till I have no more strength in me.” 

“Mama, please stop. You are going to wake the neighbours. Why are you doing this?” 

“I will wake the village! Nine months I carried you in my tummy. And now you want to kill me before my time. But my enemies will not succeed. You will not die young. Ah, my Redeemer is alive.” 

I made him swear by the Bible that he would stay away from the movement. I prayed over him too. I called upon the God of Isaac and Jacob and David to lead my son not into temptation.

He repented. He even took an interest in my business. I taught him the basics of trading. Because he could have been easily fooled by some sweet- mouthed customers, I put up a notice near the counter: “No credit today.  Come back tomorrow.” 

I was confident enough to leave him alone in the shop when I went to the next general meeting of the Ibok Women Progressive Association. We had a special guest – Lady Smith, wife of the honourable Commissioner for Special Duties.  She arrived in a convoy of four cars, and our leader  gave her a royal  welcome. 

“A woman of substance! A worthy, wife, mother and an idol for many women in this community! Shall we not applaud her great kindess?” 

As the great lady smiled and fanned herself, I studied her closely. How light-skinned she had become! I remembered when she was two shades darker. 

When she finally spoke she talked about her determination to help the women of  the community. She spoke about the Women's Development Centre that the state government would soon build. She concluded by handing out handbags to all of us. 

“It’s a small  gift,” she said. “But they are of good quality. Imported from China. You will not find this type in the local market.” 

The women clapped and cheered while Lady Smith's aides distributed the cheap handbags. Somebody commented in a loud voice that our benefactor had chosen the perfect gift: She needed a new bag to match her blue shoes that her son in London had sent her. But I did not accept the handbag that was passed to me. 

“Sometimes you can be very annoying,” my cousin said afterwards as we walked home together. “Why didn’t you collect the bag?” 

I wanted to tell her that I didn’t care for the great lady’s gift or her bleached face. I wanted to tell her that the great lady was stealing government funds. But I held my peace and hurried home to check on my business. 

Nsima had done well at the market. I was still going through the account books when the army suddenly arrived. They kicked me around and then bundled my son  into a military truck along with some other youths. 

“They have killed me-o” I wailed. “Pain is my lot. Sorrow is my kindred. The calabash of my happiness is gone….” 

News of the arrest spread like an outbreak of cholera. Several members of the union rushed to commiserate with me. Some came and sat and said how God would not abandon his children, how I must not stop praying. Others came and talked about the desecration of the land, about the death of peace and the birth of terror. Three days later, when prayers and talks did not produce my son, the leader of our association suggested that I visit the army barracks. 

“But I don’t know where they took him to.” 

“I hear they are in Port Harcourt.” 

The woman loaned me money for the trip. She also subjected me to a prayer session. In Port Harcourt, I was surprised how easy it was for me to meet the captain in charge of my son’s arrest. His office was large and modern. On the mahogany desk was the picture of a boy. 

“You people think you own this country, eh?” the officer asked in an unmistakable northern accent. “You enjoy playing games with people’s lives. You want to turn Ibok into a war zone, eh?” 

I said nothing. I just watched his eyes. I heard him say that the oil in Ibok belonged to the federal government of Nigeria. 

“When will that sink into your silly heads?” he barked. “The oil companies have the full backing of the government to operate in that region, and the military will deal with anybody or any group that tries to terrorize the oil workers. This Niger Delta belongs to us all. Do you hear me?” 

“Please let my son go,” I begged. 

The soldier laughed. It was a startling sound, like the spurt from an exhaust pipe. 

“Why should I let your son go? He is a member of the Ibok Youth Movement, isn’t he? He is a terrorist. He must be sent to jail.” 

“He is my only child. Please. His father died while he was still young.” 

“You should have taught him to hate violence!” 

Then he picked up the picture from his  desk and turned it towards me. 

“That’s my son. I teach him to obey me. I teach him to hate violence. He is my son, so he obeys.” 

It was his son all right; the resemblance was there.  He must have been about Nsima’s age. I felt a pang of jealousy and rage. That boy had a father and a good life. What did my son have? 

“Please, let my son go." 

The man stared back at me. Neither of us said anything for several seconds. Then he smiled the strangest smile I had ever seen, vindictive and mocking. He put forth a hairy hand and touched my chin. 

“You are a very beautiful woman,” he whispered. “I like beautiful women. You and I can play a harmless game and your son will be released this afternoon.”

I thought of my late husband. I thought of my land. I thought of my son.  “Woe is me!" I cried. "Cursed be the day I was born.” 

The soldier only smiled and patted the top of the desk. 

“Don’t be so bitter, my beautiful lady. The key to your son’s release is in your hands. This little game won't take very long.” 

He was surprisingly gentle. It was over in five minutes. He gave me some money too. 

“I am not a bad man,” he said. “Had I been some other soldier, kai, your son would have been dead. But me, I don’t kill. Your son will be released.” 

Throughout the journey  home,Nsima did not say a word. The bus was filled with traders and students. I wondered if they too were members of some militant group, if they too had seen the insides of a prison. 
“Praise the Lord!” someone suddenly called, and for the remainder of the journey we were all forced to listen to the sermon of an itinerant preacher, his talk punctuated by cries of “Amen!”, “It is well!” and “Praise Jesus!” 
News of my son’s release had already spread throughout the town. Many other mothers rushed to rejoice with me. Some brought food and drink. 
“Our God is truly alive,” my cousin said. “I knew that your son would be released. I saw it in a vision. The good Lord revealed this to me.” 
She ate all the rice that I offered her. I wanted to ask her if the Lord had also shown her that there would be plenty of food to eat. When the last of the guests had left, my son decided to talk. 
“They beat me, Mama. The soldiers beat me so hard I could not cry.” 
“Oh, my poor boy! My poor son!” 

He showed me the wounds, and I wept as I bathed them and rubbed his back with ointment. 

“God punish them!” I cried. “God block their anus with clogged blood!” 

Then people began talking about me. I heard it first through my cousin. 

“They are saying  you paid the army one hundred thousand naira for your son’s release." 

“What nonsense! Where would I get all that money from?” 

When the rumour did not die, the Ibok Women Progressive Association held an emergency meeting. I was summoned before the executive committee. 

“We have been hearing a lot of stories,” the leader said. “It worries me, the way these things are being passed from mouth to mouth.” 

I stared at her head tie. I could never get mine to fit like hers. I did not have the skill or the patience. 

“You know we all love you very much,” she continued. “It is my wish to believe that the rumour is untrue, that what they are saying is complete nonsense. But…” 

“It makes sense to me,” the deputy leader cut in. “Ten youths were arrested that night. It is only your son that has been released. Why is this so?”

I watched as the treasurer rummaged through her books. 

“I have the record of all the payments that you have made to union,” she  said. “If you paid one hundred thousand to secure your son’s release, then you have been lying to us about your finances. You have been cheating the union. Mama Nsima, you did not contribute towards the building project. If I remember clearly, you paid nothing too towards our gala night.” 

The leader crossed her legs. “This is your chance to defend yourself. What have you got to say?” 

It has been six months since I left Ibok. Six months since I insulted the executives of the union and fled. Six months since I got a job as a hairdresser in Calabar. Yesterday Nsima told me he was going to be a famous football player. I liked his enthusiasm. It made me even more determined never to return to Ibok. My son will pursue his dream in a land free of oil and its discontents. He will be a master of the leather game. 

(Anietie Isong is a freelance writer and public relations professional whose short stories have been published in various journals and anthologies. He has won a Commonwealth Short Story Award, a MUSON Poetry Award and an Oluadah Equiano Prize for Fiction. He is currently working on his first novel.)