Who has seen Gambo?
Gambo Elijah is from the North. He is tall and lithe, skin like tar, fingernails stained black. When I first met him, on a Tuesday morning, six forty-five a.m., at the gates of the school’s medical centre, where we were waiting alongsides twenty or so other people, all of us freshmen, waiting for the gates to be opened, waiting to continue/start our medical registration, I shook his hands without knowing that they were stained black, the sky being too dark to see anything. Hours later, after we’d waited and waited and had tired of waiting, he said he had to go, and brought forth his hands for a goodbye shake. The sky was bright, his fingernails dark, as if he’d been playing with charcoal. I took his hands reluctantly, weary of the ugliness. And he seemed to have noticed, because the shake was very brief, courtesy him.
‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to have your number so I can keep track of any development.’ His voice was croaky, his look embarrassed.
I didn’t mind at all, for through the brief conversation we’d had earlier, less a conversation, really, than a passionate whining and remarking on how frustrating the entire bureaucracy was, I’d learnt that he had registered for Mass Communication, like me. He was the first classmate I had yet met. We exchanged numbers the way grown-ups do, i.e. exchange phones and input your number into the other person’s phone. His fingers brushed mine gently and I tried not to cringe. Then he said his thankyou and turned and went. I watched him go, all six-feet-something, his backpack worn and tired-looking, bouncing lightly on his back, his shoes old but finely-polished.
He called me the next day to ask if I’d been able to finish the registration yesterday. His voice was remarkably better than the previous day, as though technology had smoothed its rough edges. I said no, but I had made considerable progress. The last task was to do a chest x-ray. He said the reason he had to leave the previous day was that he had something important to do, sounding like someone who always had something important to do. I said ok. He said thankyou, made me promise to keep him posted on any development, said thankyou again and hung up. I smiled when he hung up. I suppose I thought his manner rather overly polite. Prim and proper. I didn’t know – although I suspected – that he was from the North.
I saw him again the next Tuesday as I was leaving the medical centre. It must have been around after twelve. He was just coming, looking haggard and ugly. His hair was unkempt, his eyes baggy, his clothes looked like they’d been slept in, his shoes dust-coated. I asked if he was okay, genuinely concerned, and he said he was fine, just tired. I said I thought he was too late for the registration today, but he should go in and try his luck. I waited outside while he went in. About five minutes later, he returned, shook his head and said: ‘No luck.’
‘Guess you’ll have to come back next week.’
‘God. This thing is really frustrating o. I’ve been coming and coming for almost a month.’
‘The thing is: you have to dedicate your time to it. Like today now, you’d have come very early, just do it once and for all.’
‘Those people are very lazy! They know how to delay people. It’s not easy now. To be coming all the way from Sango.’
‘You live in Sango?’
‘No. I work there.’
‘Are you done with yours?’
I nod. ‘They sha gave me some papers sha. Said I should come back for the medical card.’
I made to show him the papers I’d been holding but, seeing that he was uninterested, stopped mid-swing.
He hissed out his frustration. ‘I’m famished. I need to eat something.’
‘Me too.’ I said, though I wasn’t really hungry. I guess I just wanted to spend more time with him.
We went to a shop in Food Village and ate white rice and stew. When we were done, we decided to sit and relax – his idea. And we talked. We talked about how many times we’d written the Jamb and Post-Jamb exams (him thrice, me just once); how frustrating the entire system was; how knowing some influential lecturers had helped him; about the recent elections; about sports; about being gay – this lead us to Chimamanda Adichie, and subsequently to to the issue of ethnicity. Gambo said he thought the woman was prejudiced. I said I loved her. Then he asked if I’d read Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country, and I said I’d never been able to finish that book.
‘Oh, but you should. A really good book, but not very good. The writer’s emotion flawed the book. Chinua Achebe was a terrible tribalist. I didn’t know that until I read that book. He said some things that were just not supposed to be said, you know, if peace must reign. I was really disappointed. I read somewhere that Wole Soyinka said There was a Country is a book that he wished Chinua Achebe hadn’t written.’
‘ I believe he had every right to feel whatever he felt. The Easterners were really massacred in the war.’
‘I know that. Believe me, if I’d been borne in that period, I’d have taken sides with Biafrans. But the war is over. They came back. And unless they wish to start another war, which we know Nigeria won’t recover from, some things should be left unsaid, or rather, shouldn’t be said in a certain way. Some people might call it rejecting the past, but the truth is, the past is there so we can learn from it, and if we continue to bring up issues from it that shouldn’t be brought up, then what have we really learnt from that past?’
I didn’t say anything for a while. I just sat, looking, not really seeing, letting his words settle and the meaning sink.
Then, just to clear any doubts, I asked: ‘Are you from the North?’
I fell silent again. For almost a minute.
He said: ‘You see, there’s something about you Southerners. You people have many preconceived notions about the North. For example, you speak of the North as though it were singular, not consisting of the about twelve state which it actually does. I find it funny. I mean, you ask ‘Are you from the North?’ and I expect that the next question will be: ‘Where in the North? Nassarawa or Kaduna? Jigawa or Sokoto? But no, never. It’s really funny. And then, you people think that we are all Muslims; that we all bear Arabic names. And you never correctly pronounce our names. For example: you’ve been calling me Gambo, pronouncing it like ‘Rambo’, when, actually, it’s closer to ‘agbo’, the Yoruba herbal potion.’
He said this without anger or resentment, and smiled afterwards. A genuine smile. I managed to take the accusation well, smiled back even, and asked him how he knew the Yoruba word ‘agbo’. He said he’d lived long enough in Lagos. He knew many other Yoruba words.
Who has seen my good friend Gambo?
I trot into the college, past the securities in two shades of green, past clusters of about hundred people talking loudly. There’s been a protest. It started shortly after I left the school earlier today, a period of about six hours ago. The reason: a female student died in the school’s medical centre, courtesy the incompetence of the medical staff. I gathered this from Princess a concerned coursemate – who I suspect might have a thing for me – who called to see if I was okay. I said I was, why not. She asked if I was in school. I said no, I left since morning. Then she told me the story. I was already on my way back then, a mile or two from the college. I called Gambo afterwards, but he didn’t answer. Then I called Princess back to ask if she’d seen him and she said they were in class together when the protest started and had all fled when policemen threw tear gas all over the place. I got excited. Tear gas. But Gambo…Gambo is asthmatic, I thought. No, no, no…
I remember the day Gambo told me he was asthmatic. It was on New Year’s day, 2012. Actually, he didn’t tell me; I found his inhaler and asked him and he said yes. I wasn’t surprised. I suppose I’d found it normal to attach illnesses to Gambo, who always looked tired and sick, especially in the evening, for in addition to being a student, he worked two jobs: (1) as an assistant of a cyber café owner, and (2) as a popcorn maker. (By then we had built our relationship quite beyond friendship, becoming ‘brothers’ seemingly overnight. He is a good five years older than I, with a lot of experiences, and I consider him my big brother, even though he says I don’t seem as young as I am. When he didn’t get accommodation on campus, I let him squat with me. I introduced him to my roommates simply as my brother, nodding when they asked if we were ‘blood brothers’, and then shrugging when they commented that he had a Hausa accent.) The day before, I had gotten a camera.
Courtesy Gambo, I developed an interest in photography; an interest that soon multiplied into passion. He had trained in a photo studio for six months and loved the field enormously, but did not practise at that moment because he couldn’t afford a camera. But he showed me some really amazing pictures that he took, and those, coupled with his general attitude towards photography, were what did it for me.
He accompanied me to the mall where I bought the camera, cracking really funny jokes and keeping me lighthearted the whole time. (I like to go out with Gambo, for going out with him is like signing up for many hours of fun. He’s exactly that kind of guy.) When the sales attendant said how much our choice camera was, Gambo made a show of putting his two hands on his head and whistling. And after I’d paid, he teased me about being the son of a millionaire. Later, when we returned to school, he helped me set up the camera and keep the warranty slip in a safe place. He took the first shot.
I have to find Gambo. I have to find Gambo.
This is what I’m thinking as I run around the chaos-stricken campus. There are flyers scattered all over the floor, students whose eyes have reddened from the tear gas, cars with broken windscreens. Twenty minutes into my running around, I happen upon a coursemate, part of whose front tooth has been chipped off in an earlier stone-throwing session. I ask if she has seen Gambo, she shakes her head no and tells me how she lost her tooth. I tell her I have to find Gambo, apologize and move on. I check every class, check the male hostels, check the food canteens, our usual hangouts, all the while calling his number to no avail. After I’ve looked in all the places possible and still cannot find him, I begin to panic.
What if…what if…
What if he has collapsed somewhere, unable to reach his inhaler? What if I’ll never be able to find him? No. No negative thoughts!
It was Gambo that thought me to not think negative thoughts. He told me about the law of attraction, which can be put simply as: ‘whatever you think about, you bring about’. He gave me the book some time ago, because he’d observed that I worried too much. He always says that life is silly, too silly to cause one worry. His philosophy: Life occurs as a series of phases that are constantly changing, like seasons. ‘No matter your situation,’ he’d say, ‘ whether you’re hungry or tired or sick or shy or scared or broke, it’ll change. Never expect any situation to last forever. It might last long, but never forever. Not even the good ones.’ He’d pause as though he’s finished, and then continue a spell later, after one must have forgotten the whole talk: ‘Except, of course, when you’re dying. That never changes. You know it, you see it, you feel it, and then you’re dead.’ It always gives me the chills.
I amble to our class in the School of Liberal Studies, lethargy having caught up with me. It’s empty. The cleaners that are always to be found sitting around are now nowhere to be found. I open the door and enter and shut it behind me. Two minutes later, Princess ambles in singing a gospel song in a soprano voice I didn’t know she had. She stops when she sees me bent over a table top, face buried in hands.
‘Hey, Princess. Hi.’
‘Have you found Gambo?’
‘No. Have you seen him?’
‘No o. But I asked of him from Kolade. He said he fainted and they rushed him to the medical centre.’
I jerk upwards, as if suddenly electrified. Yes! That’s where he must be! I didn’t look there earlier because I didn’t have a good reason to. But if I go there now and say I want to see a friend, better yet, my brother, they’d let me in. They have to.
‘Thank you.’ I mouth to Princess, and take off as fast as my wobbly legs can carry me. Half way to the medical centre, I stop abruptly. People are running. Why? Smoke. There’s black smoke in the sky above where I estimate to be the medical centre. Then I catch the rumor: the protesters have set the medical centre ablaze. ‘If the medical centre can do no good, then let it disappear altogether,’ someone laments with great oomph. I recover and continue running, faster now, my heart thumping loudly in my ears. No, no, no… I reach the chapel path, off which the medical is. Students are running, scurrying away from the place, and it seems like I’m the only one running towards it, crazed, determimedly, as if towards salvation. When I reach the gates of the medical centre, I’m restricted from going further. Blind and frustrated, I begin to call out to Gambo. I called his name five times, whisper it twice, then call another seven times. No response. I’ve begun to sweat profusely, like the lid of a kettle. Gambo! Gambo! No response. The someone grabs me from behind. Gambo, I think. It’s Gambo; that’s how his hand feels. I’m turn around. When my gaze finally settle on the person, I realize it’s not Gambo. It’s Kolade.
‘Where’s Gambo? Princess said you were with him.’ I manage to ask.
Kolade pants. He’s been running, too.
‘I left him like two hours ago. I don’t know where he is now. When I heard that they’d set the medical centre on fire, I ran all the way here to find him. And then I heard you calling his name.’
‘Let’s ask one of th…’
‘Tola, let’s leave this place. It’s like hell.’
I ignore him.
‘Tola!’ He grabs my hand and pulls me along with him, away from the medical centre. He’s a bigger and stronger boy than I and I’m powerless against him. ‘I can’t let you kill yourself. For all we know, Gambo might be at home already.’
I know that’s an impossibility. He doesn’t just pick his bags and go home. He can’t. But I don’t argue. I let him pull me away, away from this place of grief. I let him take me to the hostel and rest me there.
The next day, the school management releases a memo that instructs students and staff to evacuate the school premises latest by twelve p.m. They’ve signed a four-week break. Some students promptly organize each other into a protest team. They seize the school gates from the security men and lock them up. No one is leaving! Their reason is simple: the school is scheduled to start the final exams next week and the students can’t have those exams delayed. Never mind that yesterday’s protesters had demanded 2 – weeks of inactivity to mourn the dead girl. (They put this in the papers they posted all over the campus, papers they titled: ‘Requests of the Students’ or something along that line.)
I pack my bags and join the myriad students waiting for the gates to be opened, looking over my shoulders for Gambo. When the gates open at around one p.m., and hundreds of home-bound students rush out of the school, worried that the gates may soon be locked, I follow them. The gates were again locked. I know this because, after crossing to the other side, I wait a spell, checking for Gambo. But I don’t. After about thirty minutes, I pick up my bags and move on. It was Gambo who taught me to always know when to pick up my bags and move on.