Monumental Shortcomings of Plastic
Art, arson, accountability, vandalism, vigilantism, media, justice and power conspire in this excerpt from Akin Adesokan‘s ongoing novel, You’ve Got to Learn to Look Stupid before Indians!
Two days after Uwais begins his official leave, he stands back from a statue at the Allen Avenue roundabout and wonders if this is the dream of his free days going up in flames. The statue is burning and a small crowd gathers but, for Uwais, on leave for the first time in five straight years of covering the City beat in Lagos, being on the spot is a piece of tough luck.
It is past noon. He is returning from the bank, one of his last errands before taking off for Obudu, the cattle-ranch resort in the southeast, where he plans to be until the week before Christmas. Getting home through Allen Avenue is intentional — it allows him to bypass the street where the urchins spying for his estranged girlfriend lie in wait, ready to rat on him. The downside is that he is compelled to go by bus, a tolerable expense compared to the cost of being ambushed by the hirelings. So here he is, face to face with the intimations of news, the kind every City journalist covets, a trickster outwitted by the goddess of rocky affairs.
It is no coincidence that Uwais chooses December, the peak of the harmattan season, for his vacation. Heavy winds are stirring out of the immensity of sand north of Chad and bringing to this coastal city films of grey dust in the middle of the day. The wind is cool but dry, the sun is out and tame, and the afternoons are languid.
According to the letter from the personnel department, his vacation is for 28 days, not counting the three standard holidays between Christmas and the New Year. Music is in the air — carols din out of the stores — and there is the glitter of buntings and tiny plastic bulbs, and the surprised cackle of fowls and turkeys stranded inside coops. In December, the last of the “ember months”, the streets and houses appear bare and chapped, beaten by the dry winds, but it is possible to sniff the season’s contentment in the hampers dressed in foil, gracing the store-fronts. Their richness — cans of fruit drinks, bottles of roast peanuts and assorted beverages — makes the streets look less spare. Here comes a time to be free of commitments.
Between errands Uwais will stop by at Mama Eze’s restaurant for a bowl of fish pepper soup and maybe two or more bottles of Star beer, depending on which or how many of his friends turn up. For good measure, he goes everywhere with a copy of In Praise of Idleness, a simple, delicious tract by an indolent mind pretending to be Bertrand Russell.
The crowd grows in size and noise, and Uwais moves with it as it moves along the fence through the small garden in the midst of which the statue stands, burning. Next to the statue a man in rags kneels down. The crowd’s noise belies its size, and about three or four able-bodied men have fallen upon him. Uwais moves closer but stands apart to get a better sense of what to do.
He knows about the statue, a monument to the military dictator, a man many fear to hate. He even published a piece about it in The Parrot when it was formally unveiled six months ago, a stoutly forbidding presence moulded out of plastic and sawdust. Now it is a splendid sight, tall and magnificent.
A huge body of flames heats the day, and bits of plastic cascade down in ultra-blue flames, dying on impact on the dry grass.
The man in ragged clothing has received a beating from the layabouts. They still stand over him, calling him a madman and arsonist, and force him to explain his action. Fighting off tears, blood and sweat, the madman admits to setting the statue on fire. He’d begun by saluting him, he said, and expected the soldier to acknowledge his greetings. Not only did the statue ignore the salutes, it also refused to answer the many questions put to him. So he set fire to it.
The layabouts are angry — they itch for more action.
Someone says: “This is the best leader our country has ever had! And you burn him?”, driving his frustration home with an exclamatory shoving of the now prone madman.
Another says: “I don’t believe he’s mad! I think he’s pretending. I think he’s doing the bidding of the enemies of our leader!”
Yet another says: “Let’s give this fool a piece of his handiwork!” He makes as if to lift the man off the ground, but his companions betray no enthusiasm for this suggestion. The statue burns. The fire brigade has not arrived.
Uwais’s first instinct, once he is clear about the incident, is to think of it as news. The City beat thrives on this kind of story and it will take him all of half an hour to worry this into coherent copy. He is on leave, however, and having planned in such detail for it, he is not about to let any newsworthy incident derail his plans. His mind is in a whirl, but he is not alone. A woman stands next to him, also looking on.
“This man must be rescued!” he says, noncommittal. He glances at his watch — it is almost one o’clock, the start of lunch at Mama Eze’s.
“Mad or not, this man must be rescued from this irrational mob,” he repeats, now more to himself.
The woman turns to him with a barely concealed sneer. “You want to try?”
“Yes, let us try.” He thinks he senses a willingness to help in the woman’s voice. “This is a human being and he has a right to live.”
She chuckles but does not take her eyes off him. “If you go there to plead for him, well, they may think you are working together.”
The prospect fleetingly appeals to Uwais. Deep down, he delights in the incineration of the statue of the dictator.
“I’m a journalist,” he says, “so they can’t think that. Besides, I don’t think anyone will seriously act on behalf of the useless … just an ugly statue.”
The woman looks away towards the mob, now buoyed by the presence of an important looking official. The vehicle in which he arrived bears the insignia of the local government area. There are two policemen with him.
“If you know Lagos, my brother,” the woman remarks, “you will know that these able-bodied men are doing this for money. See, there is someone from the local government. These thugs beat the man in the hope that someone will come and identify them as the champions of the leader’s statue.”
She may be right. Uwais is no stranger to the passions of crowds. He has covered many protests in Lagos and he knows of the desire to be seen to love the dictator. This investment in appearance, he surmises, may explain the fashioning of a statue out of plastic — the general in his stride, starched khaki in primary colours, like an enlarged Polaroid shot in 3D. Who cares who knows?
With the arrival of the police, and the distant whine of the fire brigade’s sirens, Uwais chooses to act on his first instinct. He walks across the street to a business centre where he can make a telephone call to his office.
The City editor answers from the other end. “Great, man! Cover the thing. Get a copy out of the mess, and be the first to do so!” he barks with delight.
“I’m on leave.”
“On leave since Monday. You knew that. I’m travelling today and will soon head off to the Terminus.”
“You’re telling me that because you’re on leave you will just walk away from news?”
“Bayo or Ejiro can come over. They’re on the Beat, too.”
“They’re not in the office and, besides, it’s not your place to give out assignments.”
“Maybe someone else, then.”
“You do it, I say, or be ready for a query, or worse.”
Uwais is angry but he keeps a steady voice.
“Well, Phil, I bothered to call to alert the office. I didn’t have to do it and I cannot cancel or postpone my trip. See you in January.”
He hangs up.
Unlike most of his colleagues who consider vacations a form of bourgeois entitlement, Uwais has long maintained that anyone who works hard ought to play hard. Every year since he was qualified to take official leave, he tried to take time off, as he likes to put it.
The first two years of this job, his second, were a time of military repression, rife with proscriptions, bans, arrests and detentions. Routine personal benefits were rarer than hen’s teeth. But Uwais is one of the few who think that the ordeal of newspapers under military rule is enervating enough to tire reporters, and they should be encouraged to have bits of fun.
In another year, he schemed to attend a trade fair in Accra, hoping to stay back for sightseeing at the slave castles, but he was denied the chance, on the pretext that he had been promoted to the City beat.
His last attempt at leave was in the previous year on a trip to Beirut during which he hoped to seek out the poet Mahmoud Darwish. He found out, the day before his visa interview, that anyone who visited Lebanon was automatically disqualified from visiting Israel, and vice versa. Since he had no plans for Israel, he went ahead with the interview, but the City editor took ill and the responsibilities fell to Uwais as the most senior reporter.
Fortune is kind to the patient. He reconnects and falls in love with an old friend from university — both had been indifferent to each other as undergraduates — whose father is a contractor at the cattle ranch and leases a chalet all year round. Rita is due to start a professional course in South Africa in January and they have agreed to spend a week or two together at Obudu. No sense of duty will make him give this up. To hell with Phil.
The fire brigade arrives. The statue has burnt down to a stump atop the pedestal and the water’s effect is to cool off the melted plastic, turning what remains into steaming, ashen debris. Uwais moves closer again, now that the mob is under control and the madman is being handed over to the police. Someone in the departing throng observes that, since the statue is of a living man, another can be erected. After all, the people of Lagos loved the dictator enough to put up the first one. The materials may be expensive, but surely no cost is too high in honour of the beloved leader? Even as the man is led off by the police, the government official points to two other statues nearby, both of dead men. Why, he wonders aloud, had the madman not set either of them on fire? The question intrigues Uwais.
The other errand Uwais has before departing for Obudu is a film screening at the Goethe-Institut on Victoria Island. The film, titled Africa, I Will Pluck Your Feathers!, is the work of a Cameroonian director based in Paris. A brief synopsis on the invitation card gives a misleading impression — on the strength of the title, Uwais imagines a chicken being deplumed, ready for the grill. Better to call at Mama Eze’s first.
“Another four-star general must fall!” he hears a familiar voice call as he parts the curtains leading into the restaurant.
His friends are there and the gathering of five exudes the boisterousness of a drinking party. He notices Susan in the group. He owes her some money, which makes him uneasy. Go-Slow is speaking. He is not a journalist but a close friend of Bayo, one of Uwais’s colleagues, who is also present.
A common protocol holds that journalists should not imbibe before four o’clock and only Go-Slow and one other person are drinking.
Sitting down, he calls into the side-room for a bottle of Star.
“I’m on leave,” he says in response to Bayo’s quizzical expression, “so the four o’clock rule does not apply.”
“Absolute licence,” Bayo intones.
“Indeed,” Uwais mutters, pauses, before turning to Go-Slow. “The general fell moments ago. You remember the statue at Allen junction?”
“The one you wrote ‘Monument to Disaster’ about?” asks Bayo.
“Yes. Someone torched it.”
“Good riddance to bad eyesore,” Go-Slow quips.
“That confirms your ‘theory’, then,” Bayo says. “I remember reading the article where you claim that they used plastic so the statue could burn accidentally, thus creating the need for a new contract.”
“At the time you all dismissed me as a cynic.”
“But that’s news! Was the person caught? Were you there?”
“Right there. So I walked to a business centre to call the office and Phil went on a tirade, asking me to report it, threatening to sack me and so on.”
“I’m on leave, man. I’m free from that.”
Bayo brings out his notebook.
“Tell me more, Uwais.”
A waitress enters with a bottle of cold Star and an opener.
“Are you going to Allen, Bayo?” the other friend asks.
Uwais starts to talk. Between swigs from his bottle, he briefs Bayo in detail, and enough to get him on his feet, ready to leave.
“They took the man to Area F, just in case you want to see him.”
“As you know, the police won’t let me. But I will try.”
Another waiter arrives with a tray of steaming bowls, and the aroma of fish or goat pepper soup pervades the room.
“Where are you going for vacation, Uwais?” Susan wants to know.
“Obudu, near your hometown. I will pay for your food …”
“It’s Christmastime!” Go-Slow cheers.
“Well, as someone working for Indians, Go-Slow, you should pick up all of our tabs.”
“I’m waiting for Bayo to send the bill for his assignment.”
As the banter continues, Bayo heads for the entrance.
“Be serious for a moment, Go-Slow,” he says, slowing down. “You’re wasting your time with those people, I tell you.” Then he turns to Uwais. “See you in January, man.”
“Sure. Don’t forget my credit in this story.”
Two days later, perusing the headlines at a newsstand late in the morning at Obudu, Uwais is shocked by the appearance of the story about the destroyed statue. Lurking in a corner of the front page of The Parrot, above the index, the report has his name in the byline, indicating a process about which he is totally oblivious.
Why did Bayo do this? Has Phil suddenly taken ill and thus unable to take a final decision on the copy? The report is detailed and, contrary to their earlier misgivings, Bayo has succeeded in getting access to the arsonist and talking to him.
There is also something vaguely familiar about the suspect’s name, some sort of political agitator one of his colleagues recently encountered. Uwais buys a copy of The Parrot and during lunch with Rita he discusses the incident of the statue.
“And he wrote the article. Are you sure?” Rita asks, vaguely curious.
“Most definitely. I joked about getting some credit, but not all of it.”
“Perhaps he wanted to help you save face with the person who threatened you with a sack?”
“Maybe. But then it would do to share the byline.”
“He will have a reason for doing it. Is it important enough to worry you?”
“Oh, of course not. I took care to escape from all that.”
Uwais remains puzzled nonetheless. He does not remember which of his colleagues interviewed the political agitator but he worries that his byline on the report may create the impression that he knew the man. Is this a design to put him, equally notorious for his low opinions of political radicals and his yearnings for the good life, on the same page as one of those agitators? Trouble lurks between the lines of the news item, however altruistic Bayo’s intentions.
After a few moments, Rita asks to see the newspaper. They are still waiting for their food and, this being early in their time together, there are occasional pauses that both are anxious to fill.
Rita has been holding the newspaper for several minutes, reading, and Uwais notices an unusual stillness about her after some time. She carefully lowers the paper to her lap, lets it fold, before bringing her hands together on the table, as if in an attitude of prayer. These motions strike him as odd.
“The man in the report. The arsonist. Did you say you met him?”
“Well, I saw him from a distance. I didn’t go near the mob, though I wondered if he could be rescued.”
“You’ve never met him? You don’t know who he is?”
“Not really. Sure, one of my colleagues probably interviewed him a few weeks ago, but I didn’t pay any attention to the story, and even that didn’t occur to me until I saw his name in the report, which I obviously didn’t write. He’s a kind of political agitator, I think.”
Rita pauses again, increasingly sullen, her elbows still resting on the paper.
“That’s my uncle.”
Excerpted from Akin Adesokan’s ongoing novel, You’ve Got to Learn to Look Stupid before Indians!