Nobody stays in at night. In Donga at night time you are either young and wild or old and dying. At night bankers, teachers, local politicians and business men keep old age at bay by chasing young girls wild at heart into beer parlors, Mai Suya sheds and the dark corners between houses, down the great lone road that runs past the old market, the Gara’s palace and eventually empties the town into the great river.
Sometimes the river requires a teenager via sacrifice, once a year. I would later learn or the bridge connecting the town to the entry road will fall. Sometimes if the river likes you, it would call you no matter how far you live from it, it will call usually at night and you with your eyes open but ears deaf to all the screaming and invincible to all restraint will march into it. A month later I would ask one of my students to take me across in a small canoe and he would refuse, he would tell me that once the river got hold of a stranger it wouldn’t let go.
But on my first night I didn’t know all this. I had, like the other fresh corps members, been cooped up in the room assigned to me with a corps member from the previous batch trying to sleep. Sleep in Donga I would learn, was something to be wrestled with, wrestled into. I couldn’t concentrate on my host’s joy to have me, his apologies for power outage and not being able to cook anything (hard times he said) for I was still trying to recover from my four hour journey from camp, from the harsh separation from strangers I had grown attached to in three weeks. The air in Donga was different, the sounds were different and the night was alive with a continuous chorus of chirping crickets and I had to understand these things so that I could adapt to them, the fluffiness of the fat bed that sank to the concrete floor when I laid myself down, the mildly unpleasant air in the room, a mix of stuffiness, red oil, soap and a pair of shoes that must have had a long day, these smells making the dark atmosphere in the small room thicker somehow, something one had to inhale in morsels.
I have come to understand that regardless of whatever the preachers or motivational speakers say, preparing for the worst is the best way to deal with the future. So when I didn’t see Jalingo, the state capital or Gembu a cool plateau town 150 naira away from Cameroon in my primary assignment letter I wasn’t distraught. ‘Donga’ it said. I squeezed myself into the front seat of the vehicle procured by the local government with another corps and submitted myself to the worst.
On the journey which took us back the way I came to the Jalingo camp, we drove past villages that had been burnt down, villages where my indigenous tongue was spoken and I got the sickening sensation I was navigating some sort of real life holocaust museum. A small town called Rafin Kada seized me with its antiquated buildings and happy people. They cheered as we corps members sped past and we saluted. We passed a pre-colonial style story building painted worn-white, garlanded with dying palm trees at the edge of the town and I thought to myself ‘this is the kind of house to write and cook and die in, from the first floor.’
Not long after we made a turn at Rafin Kada T junction a village with recently burnt huts loomed into view. The driver explained that the Tiv people of this village discovered that a fellow Tiv man had been leaking information about their farming plans to the homicidal Fulani so they confronted him not knowing that the Fulani were waiting for them in ambush. The resultant small war happened in the second week of our camp. The driver assured us that we were corps members so no matter what happened we would be safe. After this village was my Donga. I reached for numbness and settled back in my seat. All of a sudden pastures of verdant on either side of the road rushed up to us. The air tasted, smelt, felt different. ‘We are entering Donga’ said the driver. Our penetration of this green pasture was interrupted by a new concrete bridge and when I looked over the large body of water I would later learn traveled down from the Cameroon past this town to become the River Benue, it shimmered with the red gold of the setting sun. I had to gasp and mentally reach for a camera.
At the end of the bridge some guys wearing tattered shirts and sport shorts cheered at our arrival with the frenzy of football fans. ‘Outgoing corpers’ said someone in the back seat.
They mounted their motorcycles and led us into the town in convoy, singing anthems and waving flags. We were touched. Several people came out to dance and clap. At the school, a very respectable looking pre-independence school, children of various ages stopped dancing, sweeping and playing ball to watch our entry, their faces shinning with smiles and expectation and the warm glow of setting sunlight. And I wondered for the life of me, I wondered if this expectation was one I could satisfy. When we had been fed and reminded how excited they were to have us, I settled into my collection of American short stories. A girl I remembered from camp came to sit beside me and wanted to know what I was reading.
Now she looked liked a harlequin reader so I replied “it’s boring, a collection of short stories by American writers who have been dead for at least twenty years”
‘Well, they can’t be as boring as British short story writers, give me let me see.’
And I looked up to her impressed. She would apply for redeployment the next morning and I would receive calls from family to do the same. I would insist on staying there and live some of the best moments of my life in this strange town with this children who had survived many small wars, even though my beans farm would be burnt down by Fulani herdsmen and my library project would receive no help from the community. But as I fell asleep that first night to the chirping of crickets, I thought to myself that maybe Donga was where I was meant to be after all.
This entry was submitted as part of the Nigerian Voices competition organized by YNaija.com.
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