A frosty morning in Jos; it was still dark when Tolani Philips had alighted from the luxurious bus into the dark quiet terminus, the cold carving out a chilly welcome. It was 3am in the morning. As she dragged out her luggage, her teeth chattered with cold and something else: fear. Fear of the unknown. Nervous, she sat on one of her boxes and waited.
When she received her NYSC posting letter few days earlier, she had panicked. Lots of gory tales had been told again and again about the old North and its violent tendencies; about Christians and settlers gulping the red every now and then. Her mother had tried everything to make sure she served in Lagos but all in vain.
“Tolani, I am scared,” her mother had said, finally putting words to her fears. “I don’t want you to go. It is dangerous.”
“I thought so too, mum,” Tolani had replied. “But what can we possibly do? I have to go, otherwise I will never get a job. I need that NYSC certificate.”
Her mother hesitated for a moment and then said “In that case, I will go with you…”
“No way, mum!” Tolani protested, her face split with shock . “Am an adult, not a child.
‘Not a child? We are talking about serious stuff here.’
‘I know but I am not a kid.’
‘Yes but you are still my kid.’
‘Mom, I need to do this alone.’
‘I know but I lost my cousin to the slippery hands of the north.’
‘Yeah, yeah. You already told me that a million times. But I am not your cousin.’
‘Because you are untouchable?’
‘No mom, no one is untouchable. You need to discard your fears. Besides, people are out there and they are okay. Beside, this is the right thing to do.”
“Yes but I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
“Don’t worry. I will be fine. I promise.”
Now in Jos, and as she waited in the motor park for daylight, fear nibbled furiously. The park was littered with young travelers, most of them on their way to NYSC camp. To while away time, they chatted, shared nervous laughter and formed alliances for the future. But Tolani was a loner. Her fear of the future paralysed her need to socialise. There was one image she couldn’t get out of her head, though: cousin Olu, in his starched corper uniform, fleeing from a throng of angry youth, chanting allahu akbar and wielding all kinds of weapons. According to her mom, cousin olu had taught in a village junior secondary school and he was loved by everyone. But two months before the passing out parade, something happened that turned his national duty to a nightmare.
One of his fellow corpers, Uche Okoro caught a student reading the Quran during class and seized it. He took it home, planning to give it back the next day. But fate was against him, for that night, at the corper’s lodge, rats invaded as usual and did justice to a portion of the holy book. Uche gave it back and tried to explain what happened but in vain. Three days later and in the middle of the night, they came. They grabbed Uche, tortured her and finally killing her. But they didn’t stop there. They rounded up the rest of the corper and did to them what they did to Uche. Olu managed to escape but they haunted him and didn’t stop until he was burning orange.
Tolani shook off the image but at the same time wondering if she was going to end up like cousin Olu, cooked alive. But then, something magical happened as soon as the city shed her dark cloak and daylight came with promises. Face-to-face with Jos, the glowing capital of Plateau, the fear gave way to pure delight. It was love at first sight and she gave herself up to be completely seduced by the sound, the colour and the charm of that little paradise. The city pulsed with light and morning. The streets were crowded with people on their way to work and they all looked wonderful, vibrant and eager to be on their way. She breathed in a crispy air and soared gloriously.
On the street of Jos, she saw people who were like her and so many others who were unlike her. People who she thought she knew and had judged all her life. In close proximity with all that she had feared and despised, her prejudice drained away and she knew she would be fine.
Out of the three-week compulsory orientation camp, and the regimentation associated with military camps, the Oliver Twist in her asked for more. For more hallowed hills and glittering peaks; more hillocks, fascinating gorges and volcanic table mountings; for more of the gentle roar of nature and the swansongs of the famous River Pai; more and more of the ancient Wase Rock as it stood guard, watching over the town of Wase, and browbeating stubborn climbers into defeat; more of Pandam wildlife park and its cross-like bay, more of the ancient Kaura falls, liquid magic falling down the throat of a goddess. She asked for more and got a mighty more in return.
Courtesy of the old Corp members already serving at the University of Jos teaching hospital where she was posted for her primary assignment, Tolani and her mates were hosted to a small welcome party. It was during this party that she met the tall Hezekiah Garuba. She could not hide her intention to explore her new-found love and he offered, like a true gentleman to be her guide. And truth be told, he was a perfect guide and it was natural for them to fall in love. If they were not busy attending to patients, he would be out there introducing Tolani to the singsongs of nature and nature to the beautiful Tolani.
Once, the adventure seekers had wandered to Wase town. At the foot of Wase rock, Tolani shrieked like a baby, her excitement overflowing.
‘Look!’ she crowed. ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
Hezekiah laughed. ‘Yes it is.’
And indeed it was. The first sight of Wase rock and its intimidating poise always held any visitor glued to his feet in wonder.
Her eyes glowed as she stared at the rocky height. ‘Has any climber made it to the top?’
‘I am not sure.’
‘Really? Then, let’s go.’
Hezekiah arched her brow, wondering if she had gone mad. ‘Go? Go where?’
‘To the top. Let’s climb this giant.’
‘Are you out of your mind?’
‘No, I am not. I have to do this or I won’t be able to forgive myself.’
‘I am serious!’
‘Please, don’t mock me.’
‘That is not what I am doing.’
‘This is really important. When I go back to Lagos, I should be able to narrate my unforgettable romance with Wase rock.’
‘I understand but there is no way we can make it to the top.’
‘We can’t know if we don’t try. Please….’ She pleaded.
Hezekiah gave in and up the rocky height they went.
Determined to conquer nature, Tolani kept going, pushing harder and putting every challenge beneath her feet. Several times, she led and Hezekiah had to do the catch up. But after one hour of nonstop climbing, it began to tell on her. She breathed heavily and her legs ached all over. She tried to force her muscles to action and this put a serious strain on her body. What came next happened in a blur. She suddenly blackened out, her legs caving in. She could have tripped had Hezekiah not supported her from behind. He guided her to a square-shaped rock where she sat, catching her breath.
‘Are you okay?” he asked, worried.
She forced a smile. ‘Yes I am. Thank you.’
‘You pushed yourself too far.’ He brought out two bottled water from his rucksack and offered her one. She took a gulp.
‘Don’t mind me.’ She said, taking another gulp. ‘This city is having a serious effect on me. I want to explore her completely but that is almost impossible.’
Hezekiah smiled. ‘Maybe it is not that impossible. Why not stay after your service?’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘Because my mum will have a heart attack.’
‘Oh your mom.’
‘Yeah, my mom.’
‘She really must hate The North.’
‘You can say that again.’
‘That is understandable, though.’ He said. ‘This country is suffering from what I call national suspicion. Each ethnic group is always suspicious about the other ethnic group. And suspicion breeds fear.’
‘And fear breeds something else quite fatal.’
‘Exactly. But I blame the colonialists.’
‘Why? They have been gone for a while.’
‘Yes but they brought together more than two hundred ethnic groups with diverse cultures and religion and expected them to leave together in harmony. If you ask me, the colonialists set this country to fail’
‘Maybe we need to prove them wrong.’
‘Yes but how do we do that when our so-called leaders are busy fanning the ember of divisions just to acquire political power?’
‘Do you think things will ever change?’
‘Yes, I believe so. If you ask me, we the youth can change things, we can do things differently.’
‘I agree. I am going to miss this city.’
‘Not if you stay. You want to stay, right?.”
‘Then talk to your mother. I am sure she would understand.’
‘You don’t know my mother. She would never understand. Her cousin was killed in Maiduguri.’
‘Oh. What happened?’
‘It is a long story. If I really want to stay, I would need a justifiable reason.’
He smiled. ‘Maybe I can find you one.’
“How?’ she was curious
He flashed his white teeth once again. ‘By asking you to marry me.’
Right there on top of the great Wase rock, he proposed. She said yes. Her mother went ballistic.
‘Are you out of your mind?’ her mother had roared when she travelled al the way back to Lagos to inform her that she was getting married.
‘Mum, stop. You are overreacting.’
‘Overreacting? God, I can’t believe this. While am here praying and fasting for your safe return home, you are out there, playing dangerous games with a Northerner!’
‘Mum, this is not a game. I love him.’
‘He is a Northerner!’
‘Yes but he is a Christian too. A Christian like us.’
‘He is not like us. A Northerner is a northerner and I forbid you to have anything to do with him.’
‘But I love him.’
‘No, you can’t! You do not have that luxury.’
‘Mum, this is what I want.’
‘And what exactly do you want? To die before your time?’
‘Look here young lady, if you know that I am your mother, you will listen to me and come back home after your passing out parade. There is no way I will allow you to marry a northerner.’
‘Mum, I love him!’ Tolani insisted. ‘He is the one I want to marry.’
‘Then you may have to do it without me. There is no way I will be part of this suicide mission. Never!’
Unyielding, her mother turned a deaf ear but then, Tolani was in love and could not be stopped. One sun-soaked weekend, Hezekiah took her to the registry and in the presence of ten witnesses, they became husband and wife.
The new couple headed to church that beautiful Sunday morning to celebrate their union. As usual, the church was boisterous. In their large numbers and colourfully attired in their Sunday’s bests, the congregation sang and clapped, completely drunk in the spirit. It was in the midst of this spiritual frenzy that Tolani had the sudden urge to throw up. Feeling sick, she silently left her husband’s side and moved out of the main auditorium towards the ladies. Behind, the atmosphere was charged. Brethren were high in the spirit, singing and dancing, blabbing away in unknown tongues.
She spent at least five minutes emptying her bowel. Satisfied, she cleaned up and then stepped out. However, instead of going straight inside the auditorium, she stepped out of the church compound in search of something that would quench her hunger. She bought a bottle of coke from one of the hawkers waiting in front of the church, drank it and then retraced her steps towards the church.
All she took was three steps.
Three steps towards the church and then it exploded!
The blast was so powerful that it threw her backwards. When she regained consciousness, fire was everywhere. There was pandemonium: people were screaming, and a few people limped out of the burning church, ablaze. A crowd had gathered. Stumbling, Tolani scrambled to her feet and rushed towards the raging fire. People held her back -She begged them to let her save her husband but they would not let her go.
The crowd kept growing but no one knew what to do. Suddenly, a group of gunmen appeared from nowhere, shooting sporadically. Curiousity turned to terror and the crowd fled. There was a stampede as bullets flew. People were screaming, others crying but everyone was running. Bullets kept flying. People kept crying. To escape, they stepped on one another, punching one another, killing one another!
Somehow, Tolani managed to escape with a broken leg. With no home to return to, she flowed with the fleeing crowd.