On days I do not come to the bar, the barman tells me what happens afterwards. One night he told me one of the children died. He heard the children talking about it when he went outside to move some empty crates. He said they were afraid the woman with the blond hair might have had something to do with it. As he talked, I pulled out a notepad and a pen from my breast pocket and immediately he became apprehensive. He waved his hands and stepped backwards, looking aghast. He said, “No, no, no….I no talk again. You reporter or what? See, I don’t want trouble, been here twenty six years no wahala cha! cha!” I laughed and told him I meant no harm. Then I won back his trust with a free order for a chilled bottle of burukutu, and a plate of shaki pepper-soup. He smiled and was thankful. He told me he heard rich men came to the old mosque at night to take the girls away. He still does not believe the story anyway. “They say the men bring them back in the wee hours of the morning and the woman collects money.” He was almost whispering as he leaned to place my order on the table. Then he said, “The only thing I believe is, if what they say is true, then there may be people here who work for her, they feed her information and possibly settle the prying eyes of the public.”
Later that day I’d told him: well, you guessed right, I’m just a newspaper reporter and he laughed saying, “All these shitty reporters, you want to win award with this story or what eh?”
I first came to this place three months ago. Here, the road is a mixture of the city’s dirt and muddy soil. Successive governments have avoided working it, so during rainy days inhabitants wrap their shoes in nylons and wear rubber boots instead. During this time, it is usually messy and it is only when they get to their various places of work that they put their shoes back on. Most of the kids are always bare footed, but Suspect X, as I have observed has ankle-length rubber boots. The few kids who have boots are a little older, about ten or eleven years of age and are mostly girls. Abu says they are Madam’s special angels, they work well. Madam is the name everybody knows her by. She commands calm respect, the barman confirms it, although she usually keeps to herself and drinks alone.
The couple stand up to leave. The man is satiated now; he stretches and belches loudly. His woman covers her hair with a lilac hijab and nudges him forward. He mouths a muffled protest in response. When they pass my table, she slips a folded piece of paper under my bottle of beer and smiles. The barman will later tell me she has fucked every newcomer at the bar and poor Salami, her man, does not know. I unfold the paper and find the address of an abandoned primary school. “Once you have Tusbar kudì, you’re good to go,” the barman quips.
The rain begins to subside and as I step out into the night, I observe that both the fruit and the maize sellers are closing their makeshift shops for the evening. The naked flames on the wicks of their Otanja dance lazily in the gentle breeze and the sellers beckon passersby to come and buy the remaining perishables at half its original prize. I have been persuaded into buying a globe of watermelon like this, only to get home and find out that the inside was rotten. When I went back to the vendor the next day, she said I was unlucky to pick a bad one. Her watermelons don’t easily rot. I pull the hood of my jacket over my head and walk into the alley between the two brick buildings. The air as always is thick with the smell of sewage and urine. It was here I met Abu.
Just like today, it had rained that day. Only that the rain came and went at hurried intervals. It was almost nightfall. I’d decided to walk in the dark, and so I was being careful not to step on any heaps of excreta when suddenly someone bumped into me. The collision sent the figure spinning backwards into a pool of urine and semi-solid faeces. I felt something splatter on the ankles of my denim jeans when the figure landed.
“You don’t see fa? You not get eyes? Stupid!”
It was the voice of a boy protesting angrily. He scrambled back to his feet. I took a few steps backwards and offered a quick “I’m sorry.” Then I flicked my torch light on and saw his figure clearly. He was not more than ten, or thereabout, and he looked rather too tall for his boyish face. I ran the light over his body, observing the places stained by murky fluid; it was on his hands, arms, khaki shorts, maybe his back completely. He stood still. I pointed the light to my feet and panned it over my rubber boots and ankles. There was a thick lump of faeces on my left foot and a little more on the jeans covering my ankles. Just then the boy giggled. I quickly returned the light to him and he giggled again raising a hand to shield his eyes.
He said, “You not expect me to say sorry fa? Is not my fault. Not all anyway. You no get light, me, I was running to see Madam.”
I apologized again saying, “It’s all my fault son, I’m very sorry. But you have to go home now. Its late eh! And this place is bad at night, go!”
I waved him off, and turned back towards the muddy road, hood over my head, flashlight glowing, and stinking like a sewage tank. Soon, I heard footsteps trotting closely behind me and when I turned around, I realized he had followed me instead. He motioned at me and said, ‘Uncle, come, come let me show you.’ His voice brimmed with innocence, the kind that propelled every child’s adventure and this urged me to accept his invitation. Also, it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to establish a rapport with him— someone closer to Suspect X— and since luck was in my favour, I went for it. I followed him.
A single light bulb flickered on and off at a distance and cats mewed. He led me deep into the settlements, to one of the brick structures, a bread factory with a busted overhead water reserve from where water leaked and spurted steadily on the gravel floor. Then he stripped and stood under the downpour.
“Uncle see? You get dirty, you come here and wash your body of all the shit. No Almajiri know this. Is my little secret.” He said and splattered around happily.
I laughed and stood aside to watch him play. When I was sure he was beginning to get exhausted, I asked him, “What’s your name?” He parted his lips and licked the water as it trickled into his mouth, “Bathe and I will tell you,” he replied.
When I went under the water, clothes on, he laughed and flashed the torch light on my face. It was already night and his voice unfolded into the darkness like an echo.
The next day he found me before I did.
“What do you have to do with that boy?” The barman had asked me in a whisper.
He threw a quick look around before fixing his gaze on me again. “I mean Abu. Small boy like up to your chest height. He come look for you.”
“Nothing” I replied. “Just my friend.”
The corners of his lips upturned to show disapproval and he said, “Better be careful eh! That boy is a bag of trouble. Last year police people look for him well-well. Them say him kill a man.”
He looked afraid the moment he said this. So I let Abu seek me out instead, and he did. He came knocking at the door of my shack late that night and when he said, “Open sah! Is boy you push down yesterday”
I smiled and let him in. He warmed his hands over the stove, said, “Uncle, you don’t smell of shit now, you clean.” His ability to initiate conversations effortlessly appealed to me. It was daring and yet utterly compelling in a way I could not easily explain. He was friendly. His eyes darted around my little space, and he ran his fingers on the aluminium walls that rose up on four sides to meet a roof of the same material, supported by rafters of slender wood. At the shelf, he stopped and looked at the rusting piece of iron furniture having two short rows packed with books and a drawer below. The former occupant of this place had left it here.
“You keep book, I like book but can’t read.” He pulled out a magazine and sat on the bed. It sagged under his weight with a squeal. His silhouette danced on the opposite wall as the flame of the candle on the shelf flickered and burned. He flipped through the pages and paused to stare at pictures.
“What does your name Abu mean?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation going. He looked up and said, “I don’t know.” He went back to the magazine again. The bed was high enough to for his legs to dangle slightly off the ground. I observed his shirtless body closely, it was streaked with dark marks; probably marks from whipping, and then a diagonal scar on his right shin.
“You work in the city?” He asked, turning the magazine to show me images of office buildings reaching for the sky. As he said this, I noticed there were holes in his teeth.
“Something close to it.” I replied.
“What you do for a living?”
“I am a reporter,” I replied. He nodded and smiled, and repeated the word Re-por-ta a few times as though he was memorizing it.
“You speak Hausa?” he asked again.
“No.” I replied.
“Baaad,” he said and shook his head, “I not go to school. Never before, though Madam is always promising, promising. So I speak small English.”
When he closed the magazine and returned it to the shelf, he looked at me and said again that he didn’t know what his name meant and didn’t know his mother and so couldn’t ask her. He looked serious. When I asked him who Madam was, he stood up and ran off into the night.
I call headquarters. I hear a commanding voice on the other end, “Yes?”
“It’s Rosco” I reply.
“Ah! Rosco! Rosco!!!” The voice softens immediately. It is Abdullahi, the debriefing officer overseeing the progress of my case. “How are you eh! It’s been quite long we’ve almost forgotten you’re out in the field.” Soon we are laughing and exchanging pleasantries. He says, “007 Rosco, it’s funny how we quickly forget a case is open oh! The crime rate in this country is too much. The prisons are overflowing eh!, you need to see.”
I tell him about the boy but he has reservations. He is afraid too much information is going both ways. He says “You know this trafficking business is a large network Rosco, it is full of dangerous people so you have to be careful. Keep your head low, so Suspect X won’t be your last job in the field. The government will forget your family if you die in action.” I tell him I trust the boy anyway and before he hangs up, he tells me about his child’s christening and I feel bad telling him I cannot make it.