The only tarred road in our small village town of Jato-Aka was flanked by old colonial buildings with elevated storefronts. See the horizon? If you’re a newcomer, you feel you can pull it down like a curtain and see Cameroon, because that’s the country behind the hills. But Jato-Aka was a country, too. A very silent one. Until one day Old General drove into it in his Grand Cherokee trailed by two pickup truckloads of household stuff.
His arrival did not penetrate the silence so much. In the morning, some devout boy rang the bell at the church waking the village, dragging devout mothers from their beds to morning mass. Silence abounded still because Jato-Aka was one of those places whose days held an imaginary grievance over its existence. The cocks crowed at given intervals in the day, the roads welcomed footsteps that cared about it. Our afternoons were calm and quiet so that any sound heard—the birds chirping, the ebbing drum of automobiles, the thud of pestle against mortar—seemed near and far at the same time. At night, Jato-Aka bore the semblance of a small city as generators gave life to 60 and 100 watts bulbs. Men talked about the government. Women talked about farming seasons and market days. Girls gossiped. And boys debated over the Premier League.
We often called the retired army General with his Grand Cherokee, Janala. His return to this place was for reasons no one knew. Whoever returned to a graveyard? He opened a school and named it after himself. The old government primary school here lived in past glories, glimpsed only in the few old men and women who occasionally displayed a command of Queen’s English. But it had become something that only once existed but was now a ghost of itself—so the old General’s school wasn’t taken seriously. As days grew boring for him, I’m sure, mostly when he was done wandering and being so much of a foreigner, which I shall soon tell you about, he began to visit the drinking shop where we all wasted time and talked endlessly about the world. And there he wooed many with bottles of Schnapps; and with his words, oratorical and unrelatable as they came, but which everyone agreed were sagely.
I often had the feeling he acted too much like a bloody colonial District Officer. On placid afternoons, Janala collected things. All kinds: junk, scrap metal, any abandoned thing that resembled a relic. He took many walks, visited homes, and had conversations with the villagers about the town. He created a lot of fanfare, that man. A new poster often appeared about a new activity. One time, it was a poster for the recruitment of young men to form a vigilante group he called Boundary Squadron. Another, about a quiz competition at his school. Another, about a games bazaar. And lastly—in God’s name—a science fair! He found a disciple in one of the widows here. She gave her 11-year-old son Bem to his school and Bem became Janala’s favourite kid. One day, the boy asked a question as they sat in a boat, each with his hook and line.
Ortamen Janala, he said. Er nena man ulua ivyu sha ityo gbin nahana? Ortamen Janala, why do you have a lot of white hairs?
Because I am an old man.
My grandma—she isn’t older than you, yet, she walks with a stick. How come?
Because she isn’t dieting.
What is dieting? Bem asked.
It means eating the right things, Janala said.
Tomorrow, let’s learn about dieting, said the boy.
Thus, we lived with him and his eccentricities; he was one of us after all, a true son of Jato-Aka with right to the soil. But I never expected, one great afternoon, when I tuned the radio that I would hear myself listening to Radio Jato-Aka. I have a brief history of how it began. Bem said that as Janala sat on his chair one day listening to the buzz from his radio, Janala slept off. He had nearly fallen off his chair when he staggered and regained himself, and thought indignantly about how lousiness was creeping on him, so he directed his anger at the radio. “Kuku,” Janala cursed. “These radio stations don’t have shit to broadcast—” So he collected the radio and flung it at the wall, making it scatter to the ground. As the components scattered on the ground, he lit up with an idea. The next morning, he carried some tools with Bem, found a spot on a hill, and built a radio station.
They reported the weather and news, local and foreign. At night, they played popular traditional songs. This won Janala some believers. And one day—stay with me—when gliders over Cameroon’s hills missed their way by wind into our town, Janala brought out a compass from an old iron toolbox and sent the aliens back over the hills. When this news spread like harmattan bushfire, we began to see more children in the morning, whom when we asked them where they were going, they gladly told us, ze mba zan manta u Janala, we are going to Janala’s school.
Even I began to give interest into the spectacle of the old man. He was indeed something, for the way the children in our town spoke with light in their eyes about him, we certainly felt there was that thing called dreaming. Then one day, it happened again, the pestilence of locusts that struck every year, unexpectedly. In the time the old General was back, it had not happened. The Fulanis came.
That day, Bem plucked a book from Janala’s shelf and, stepping out of the main house, walked to their backyard house built on a small hill to read. It was there from the window, he saw flames rising in the sky. People burning things, he thought. Groundnut or guinea corn peels, soybeans chaff, bush burning. Then he heard a wailing and thought: another young husband beating his wife.
That was when Janala walked in with a shotgun in his hand.
Bem, he shouted, u ngu eren nyi, what are you doing?—Janala’s words marched into Bem’s head. Don’t you see houses burning? Don’t you know people have been killed?
Bem started, closed the book and leapt from the chair. Janala had never spoken to him in Tiv before and his expression was without charm, but grave. Bem saw the gun his Janala’s hands and knew why he had heard the loud sounds, too.
From the floor, Janala pulled off the carpet and revealed a square opening with a descending staircase to the basement. He went in, Bem after him.
Many of us arrived at Janala’s house later that noon. Gripped by fear, it was our fortress because the old soldier fired his gun earlier in the day. We brought the injured when Ortwer, Jato-Aka’s one-man healthcare service was helpless with the blood of hacked victims pooling on the verandah of his chemist shop. Janala’s boys, the Boundary Squadron, whose training had not seen usefulness, arrived and assisted with First Aid.
This is too much, one of them said.
Not too much, returned Janala.
Spurts of Sir! Sir! Sir! came from the boys when they saw him and saluted.
On a very hot afternoon, Bem said. On a very hot afternoon.
What, one of the boys asked.
The attack, Bem replied.
You prefer at night or at dawn when they can do more damage? It’s not as if we’ve ever been able to fight them back. Don’t they just turn back, go, and then come again?
The afternoon gave way and the day began to wane in light. But Janala’s compound was crowded even. He wanted to tell us that the Fulanis won’t return at night, as such a rumour had spread.
Ior ve yem sha uyar vev, he said. People should go to their houses.
Bem thought he should have said, “Hanmaor nan yem sha ya u nan”—Everyone should go to his house. By saying “people,” Janala was passive. Or he should have given a command: Go to your houses, everyone. Bem surmised, as a natural Tiv boy, that Janala didn’t speak good Tiv.
We didn’t move, so Janala fired a shot into the sky. The shock passed but nobody moved still. A woman broke into a cry.
By tomorrow when they are sure of safety or get hungry, they will leave, Bem said.
Bem’s prophecy came true. After the third day, Janala’s compound cleared out except for a few people who turned it into a hospital for their injured, camping and visiting, for the love of free antibiotics. This distracted the schoolchildren because one of their classrooms was transformed into a clinic. And there were the other women camped in the compound, cooking for Janala’s squadrons, the kind semi-doctors and soldiers in charge of our Jato-Aka. The aroma of their cooking was a serious distraction when it wafted into the classrooms and forced the teachers to muse about heaven. But a major distraction came two days later in the sound of sirens and men clad in black.
The convoy of the Commissioner of Police abused our only road, which ended in the market area. It wound its way and poured into Janala’s horseshoe residence and primary school. Helmet- and bulletproof clad policemen jumped from Hiluxes and stood in formation. The schoolchildren tilted their classrooms to the side of the windows, to the trucks and men and guns. See commando gun. See soja. See that big man, they said, Bem told us.
The big man was the Commissioner of Police who stepped out of a Land Cruiser with a staff in his hand. He was twice in size as one of his men—an elephant. He held a newspaper and walked with a slight limp and the practiced gait of importance. He walked to the poles hoisting the flags of the school and the country at the entrance to Janala’s office.
No one knew what the two men talked about, as they were alone in that office. Nonetheless, rumours about their conversation spread. But I imagined something like this:
The CP walks into Janala’s office and takes a seat without being asked to, and says, “Retired General Tarfa Orakaa, good morning.”
“Mr Commissioner,” Janala may answer.
The Commissioner tosses the newspaper to Janala. They have serious arguments.
“Look, General. Retired. You have a serious case on your head. You are ordered to back down in case you have any further plans with this thing you started,” the CP says.
Maybe Janala is poised by his years as a serviceman to undermine the CP.
So the CP goes on, “You are raising a militia. You are—”
And Janala says, “And there’s a militia out there butchering people.”
“I have orders—Your squadron,as it says in the papers—”
Janala retorts and the CP says Janala has raised his voice. Then his fatwa follows: “I have been asked to keep you under house arrest until you give up your cache of ammunition. My boys will be around.”
That day, three days ago, when Janala and Bem went into the basement of the backyard house, they came out prepared for a small war. This is how the story goes:
Two Boundary Squadron sergeants received M16s. They mounted surveillance in the direction the attackers might have likely returned from. With binoculars and comms linked to the General, they were prepared for anything.
In one of Janala’s classrooms, a crisis room was set up and a map of Jato-Aka, which Bem and Janala drew by traversing the whole town, and with the aid of Google Maps, was displayed on a board.
Janala said, “The assailants came from here,” as he pointed at a spot on the map to his squadron. “From my study of the terrain,” he continued, “I believe this is their only entry point into Jato-Aka. From here. I know they are coming back. I shot their men.”
The squadron boy who told me all this said he had wondered if their manpower was enough for the enthusiasm. There were twelve of them. He asked Janala once why they were not twenty-five or more but Janala answered him with wisdoms about the art of war.
Bem stayed in the improvised comms room monitoring a radar’s screen covering the layout of Jato-Aka.
That first night at Janala’s house when we refused to go home, a bonfire was built at Bem’s suggestion. A kind of wake-keep, he said. There was no short supply of food as the fire burned throwing golden sparks of light. A wry drama was performed by an improvised troupe. A woman raised a traditional song. Radio Jato-Aka did not air; we were in a moment of silence. Over the horizon, we wondered what the Cameroonians were up to, did they enjoy their place in the cosmos? Or fraught, were they, with a violence of their own? Or whether they danced to local music and drank local brew somehow, crickets making sounds in one of their villages.
Why should one man have more right to kill another, Bem asked.
Shi a hii ve ga, another said. Ah! Has he started again? in sarcasm of Bem who everyone teased for having too many words in his mouth, and for his age.
It’s the way of history. Man dominates fellow man, Janala said.
By using fear, a woman, one of the schoolteachers, said.
But by killing Fulanis, are we not killing Nigerians, Bem asked.
We are not killing anyone. We are defending ourselves, Janala said.
You know, there’s a story about these repeated attacks, Bem said.
The Usman dan Fodio one, you mean, someone asked.
Yes, Bem said. They say the Fulanis never forgive nor forget; that they are trying to finish what Usman dan Fodio started when our ancestors stopped him. To penetrate Benue and continue his jihad to the south . . .
No one spoke for a while, and everyone seemed to be waiting for the person with the next wise thing to say. In the silence, the Retired General Tarfa Orakaa, somehow, uncannily, recited to us, from memory, a poem about a man who stopped in a forest in the evening with his horse as snow fell. The bonfire shone and burnt rebelliously as if with a secret.
This is how more of the story was told to me:
In the morning of the third day, one of the Squadron boys at the surveillance post began speaking into his radio: This is Squadron Team Begha. Do you hear me? Over.
Bem said he pressed a button and the transmission connected to the General over a radio. “This is Squadron Team Leader. I read you, Begha. Report,” Janala had answered.
Now, I want to tell you this: once upon a time here, in Jato-Aka, nomads arrived with their butchering implements. And after they were scared off, they still returned. It was after one of the Squadron boys at the surveillance post narrated the events of that day to me that I decided to join the Boundary Squadron. They had reported to Janala what they saw from afar: Figures in the distance. Counting thirty. Profile matches expected assailants. Men with swords. Nomads.
Carl Terver is the author of For Girl at Rubicon. His work has appeared in The Republic, Olongo Africa, Iskanchi, The Question Marker, Millennial Poets, and in Afapinen, where he is the founding editor. He is the Digital Editions Editor at Konya Shamsrumi. He lives in Makurdi and Abuja, and his forthcoming short story collection is The Talking Fridge.