The African Mist started 5 years ago as a pitiful attempt at an ode to my childhood – the colourful characters minus the brutal violence that occurs in most of the book. But it soon became clear to me that this story was much more as my characters struggled and then successfully broke from the bonds of my nostalgia to become fuller creatures in their own right. They spoke their own words and did their own thing until it became evident that my scope was limited.
I then released these creations to play in the science fiction genre and as they gleefully escaped from the restrictions of juvenile fiction – the style I had initially intended my narrative to follow – I soon found that I needed a new playground for them.
So the city complex was born, and with it a new direction for the story: what if this was all a story of a class war in Western Africa? The scene was thus set, but again my characters stopped my forward trajectory: what would happen if in this war you couldn’t truly root for the poor guys, because there were no clear good guys or bad guys? What would happen if the colour scheme was hard to separate, white from black, so that each character had different sides to them – the bad guys being capable of doing good things and the good guys sometimes being guilty of malicious acts of wanton violent terror? What if it didn’t matter who won anyway in the class war because the poor are just as bad and as corrupt as the rich? What then?
Well, in a nutshell, this is the story of the African Mist. It’s my first novel after my collection of short stories, The Mind that Father Made, and I hope you enjoy it. It is a tale of children growing up in a corrupt place so that their futures are jeopardised. In many ways it is the story of Africa, the story of unfulfilled dreams.
And now, I proudly present the African Mist.
I am fourteen. There’s really no way of knowing my age for sure, but after inferring from my friends’ ages I’m fairly confident of my guess. Down here in the basement all anyone is concerned about is survival. It’s not always bad; there are some good things that happen, but on the whole all I’m trying to do is keep from getting shot, or maimed. Like I said, I’m fourteen, so I’ve done quite well for myself. I had a good friend when I was about eight. Some armed robbers came into his parents’ allotted compartment, shot his father, and raped his mother. They should have let Kelechi go. He was only a child. They didn’t, and now he’s in heaven – at any rate that was what was said at his funeral.
‘I love you, Papa,’ I say to the man lying on the mattress on the ground. My voice is barely a whisper. It’s dangerous to wake him up from his nightmares. I did that once and he nearly choked me to death. But it wasn’t his fault. He was just afraid. We’re all afraid.
I leave our compartment and walk down the narrow hallway to the service lifts. It’s five in the morning and the boys are already up, all preparing to head up to Open City.
I take a deep breath as the rusty door opens, protesting loudly on hinges that need a good coat of grease.
‘Hey!’ a voice says behind me.
I turn around to see Charmbo. It’s a nickname, and you only need to look at him to know why he has it.
‘You beat me to the lifts again,’ he says with a grin, which shows his yellow teeth. ‘That’s the third time this week. How do you do it?’ He clutches a wooden cross with one hand, and fingers what look like chicken bones tied to a string with his other hand.
‘I don’t sleep very well these days,’ I say, straining to smile. ‘So I’m always up early.’
‘I went to the medicine man last night,’ Charmbo says, suddenly lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. He digs through his many pockets until he finds what he’s looking for. ‘He gave me this.’ He shows me a piece of broken glass.
Charmbo allows me to take the piece of glass from him.
‘What’s it do?’ I ask, fascinated.
‘The babalawo says I just need to look at my reflection and I’ll disappear. That’ll keep me safe from all those monsters out there.’
I look impressed and Charmbo smiles.
‘But you have so many charms, Deji,’ I say, using his real name. ‘Couldn’t I have this one, just this once?’
Deji shakes his head. ‘I can’t do that. These charms cost a lot of money. They’ll get me wealth in the end and so I can break even and then move on to make a profit. But until then, I have to guard my investment.’
‘I’m telling you, Deji, I don’t feel lucky today. I’ll give it back to you after we get back.’
Deji shakes his head again even as a familiar voice announces over the loudspeakers: ‘You can now enter the lift. Move in an orderly fashion. Mind the gap. Mind the gap.’
The fifty or more children that have been awaiting this order begin to shuffle through the doors of the lift. I bump and shove in order to keep up with Charmbo. And the ubiquitous voice continues from the surrounding speakers, ‘Governor Felix Noah and his government continue to take the attacks on our female compatriots very seriously and so our girls will continue to be banned from resuming their duties with the rest of the workforce in Old City.’
‘Deji, I’m begging you, biko,’ I say, not letting up.
Charmbo again shakes his head. By now his stubbornness is getting to me. I hiss and throw the charm at him. He catches it, miraculously avoiding its sharp edges, and puts it back in his pocket.
I turn away from Charmbo in a show of anger. The lift starts up, shaking violently from side to side as it starts its ascent to the exit of the city complex.
I wipe the mist from the eyepiece of my headgear, and breathe normally through my gas mask. The others are all doing the same. We are professionals and have done this many times. I clutch Charmbo’s piece of glass in my fist and take my first steps today outside the city complex.
It’s a maze of structures and vehicles and people – all seem to be busy doing something or other.
‘Hey, you been briefed?’ a man says to me. Even in the gas masks you can always recognise an acquaintance. I don’t know this person, but guess him to be a scientist. They, like the rest of the elite, are the only ones who speak English here. Maybe it’s to remind us just how much more above us they all are.
‘Yes, sah!’ I reply to him in a meek voice.
‘Then you know the drill,’ the scientist returns. ‘Make your way down the column and board a flier.’
‘Yes, Master,’ I say, and head in the direction of his pointing finger. Why’d I run into this stranger today of all days when I’m feeling so vulnerable? This isn’t the first time I’ve had these fatalistic thoughts; they plague me all the time. But today is different. I can feel it. I can see I’m going to die, and it takes all my strength to continue heading in the direction of Open City. So when Deji finished his meal of eba and eguisi soup and fell into a deep sleep – as he often did – I picked through his pockets and got the charm he had failed to give me earlier.
This little piece of glass will keep me safe, I say to myself. And just to make sure I mumble a common chant on it.
Then I notice two pilots looking at me. My eyes dart away instinctively.
‘Don’t they scare you?’ one of them asks the other. They’re also wearing masks, though different from mine.
‘They’re just kids,’ the other replies.
‘Kids,’ the first says contemptuously. ‘Right, the kind of children who rape girls when we leave them alone in the ruins.’
‘They’re boys. You remember being a boy, don’t you?’
‘I do. But not like them. I’m telling you they look even less human in those masks of theirs. It’s like they’re waiting for us to slip so they can jump on our backs and slit our throats, start some kind of revolution. Look at how that one keeps looking here. It’s like he understands us.’
‘Calm down. I don’t know what they teach them in those schools of theirs down in the basement, but it’s not English. He can’t understand you.’
‘I think he does. I’m afraid, I tell you. Look he’s walking away.’
‘Just let him be. Life’s hard enough for them.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like Tai.’
‘What’s wrong with that? Everyone needs a champion.’
I scurry away as quickly as my legs will carry me.
We gather around the fliers and I watch the other boys go through their rituals. One makes the sign of the cross, and then I see another. I gravitate toward this person. He’s my height and I reckon should be about my age.
The boy has an elaborate necklace with a huge piece of glass in front. I frown as I look down on my own little piece, which now suddenly looks inadequate. Maybe I should have stolen his instead.
Then I spot Charmbo, searching frantically through his pockets. Lost something? I hurry away from his vicinity and head toward one of the fliers to my right.
‘Okay, boys, you know the drill. Shut up, get in, and hold on to the brackets. I don’t want any accidents now, no one falling out.’
We get into the vehicles, but we don’t shut up. It’s like this all the time. Not that we’re being openly defiant, but the level of noise always increases as we head out. Just the boys coping with nerves, I think.
I look back to see if I can see Charmbo. I don’t. He’s in one of the other twelve fliers. I grab on to a bracket protruding from the wall, as I feel the vehicle move. It climbs and we leave the city complex. The bastion of a building stretches high to heaven – the proud fortress of the oil rich.
We’re in old Lagos mainland. The fliers canon through the air as they zoom over the brackish waters of the fallen city. The swamp is the only victor here, reclaiming land that was once denied it. Then my flier breaks formation and heads toward the university.
Today will be like the other days. There is no change here. I’ll do what I’ve done since I was twelve, collect samples for the scientists. They should have found a cure by now, after all these years. But no, the purple mist continues to haunt the city.
I look around at the others. It’s strange how we all were so noisy leaving the city complex, but are all now very quiet as we approach our destination. Someone coughs and it sounds like an explosion. I clutch my little piece of glass. I have named it Nkem. Nkem will keep me safe, safe from the dangers of Open City.
‘Get ready, boys,’ the pilot says over the speakers. He sounds new. Another omen. Another portent; my impending death speaking in whispers.
I ignore the knots forming in my stomach.
We hover over the depths, sending ripples across the water. There is dry ground a few yards from us. We boys jump in the water and wade slowly to it.
We form teams of eight. Out here the only weapons we have will be each other. We stick close and prepare to head out.
I’ve covered this sector before – doesn’t make it less scary, though. To our right we can see a sign made from concrete. It says, University of Lagos.
There’s much to be done. We’ll head for dry land farther up, within the university grounds. And then we will do whatever has been allocated for us to do: collect samples, catalogue items in whatever houses that may be entered safely – the usual. By now I do not think any of this will do us any good. The scientists probably know this too. But they have funding – so Arinze says at least.
What are we doing here? Collecting the last drops of oil this part of the world has left to offer. Keeping the port open, which will take this oil to the rest of the world.
‘Lights,’ my team leader says, and I suddenly realise that I’ve been daydreaming.
‘You know what to do, boys. We all know each other. We work well together. Stay close. Don’t wander off.’
Small consolation, I think – this reliance on numbers. The truth is we are so exceedingly small, so incapable of handling dangers even grown men would find daunting.
The boy next to me is Igbo. ‘Open up your hand, Emeka. Osiso (quickly).’
He obeys and I drop a ration bar in it. He closes up his palm again without so much as a word.
‘How come you never talk, eh, Emeka?’ I whisper to him, out of earshot of the others in our group. ‘You take my bribes, at least you could say, have a safe journey, Wike.’
‘Have a safe journey, Wike,’ Emeka offers bleakly.
I hiss. ‘At least you could pretend to mean it.’
The group moves out. We walk in single file, each person carrying his lantern with one hand, and with the other holding on to a rope: we all hold on to it; it will keep us from getting lost.
But I see my chance and let go so that I am no longer a part of the group, with the group. Emeka sees me and turns his head away. I watch them labour onwards, until they disappear, engulfed by the purple mist.
I start to breathe heavily.
Fear is a cruel thing. I should know, because, now, I am afraid. My insides feel like they’ve been laden with lead. Each step is a journey. Each breath an accomplishment.
The mist swirls around me. You can almost make out its fine particles. I hold my lantern up. My business should not take me long.
I make my way along this abandoned street. Sixty years ago it would have been full of people, intelligent people, an avant-garde eager to join the elite of a prosperous Lagos. I turn into an alley. The way is marked in my mind.
I ascend some steps and come before a wooden door. The door has been broken off its hinges, but I know there’s no way to gain access. It’s barricaded on the other side, and the only way to get in is through a hole in the wall. I push a refrigerator that leans against a wall. The hole is revealed!
I’m small enough to squeeze through and I do, first pushing my lantern through, before dragging myself in.
Inside, I again raise the lantern above my head. Everything is as it should be. I take in every detail. All my senses are on high alert, adrenalin pumping furiously through my veins. This is the only way to survive: when you are aware of even the slightest change, to spot the unmarked intruder before he jumps you. But there’s no one here. I’m safe. For now.
I relax a little, and take a seat on the bare wooden floor. The eyepiece is starting to mist again and I sweep my gloved finger across. Get up! Rest time is over. I get up, albeit reluctantly – in these rare moments of rest, my mind will often flirt with suicide – and reach toward a loose tile in the wall. I shift it and put my hand in the resulting hole. Then draw my hand out almost immediately, as I feel an animal scamper across it.
I hold the saved appendage. My breathing has resumed its strained quality once more.
I bring the lantern in front of me to see the hole more clearly. There’s a rat hiding in it. I gulp down hard, realising that it would have chewed clean through flesh and bone if I had not acted fast.
I search around me for a tool of correction and settle on a stick with a pointy end. Lance in hand, I jam it repeatedly toward the rat. The stick is strong enough and does not break, and its point sharp enough and it does some hurt. I grab the tail of the squeaking animal and pull it out, leaving it to bleed out and die on the floor.
The squatter having been evicted, I now put my hand in again to collect my prize, and bring out an object wrapped in a dirty cloth.
An oka rifle. I hold it in my hand. It’s a simple weapon, comprised of a tube and firing mechanism. I sit on the floor again and begin cleaning my rifle. Then I get out a small satchel, tied at the end with a piece of string. After unwrapping it, I pour its contents down the barrel of my oka. The gun powder now in, I rest my back against a wall, and go to sleep.
I wake up with a start and feel sweat on my brow underneath my mask. I stand up with some difficulty – the plastic protective suit I wear is very restrictive.
The light from the lantern in the corner provides scant illumination. I retrieve it and prepare to head back outside, not knowing how much time I’ve spent sleeping.
I reach in a pocket and hold Nkem – the charm I stole from Charmbo – and mumble a prayer.
The purple mist outside is thicker than ever, maybe sensing my hesitation to delve into its depths. Still, I plunge into its womb, mindful of the many dangers that await me.
All my senses are alert; my fatalism makes me more cautious, aware of every sound, every smell, every external stimulus presenting itself. The portent that I have nursed since waking up afflicts me again, but I will not let it take control. I refuse to relinquish control. Instead I run, making my limbs work. Fearful of the dark, I continue on, my courage asserting itself.
The ground is unsure here – the roads have been abandoned and unused, left unrepaired for decades. I fall, and push my hands forward to act as buffer between the floor and me.
I roll around and sit on my buttocks, drawing my knees in to me.
I’m breathing heavily, but this is because of my little race across the barrenness. It’s surprising just how much fun I had just now, I suddenly notice, and conclude I must be high on adrenalin. I get up again, slowly. I know the path, because I’ve used it before. It’s not a very difficult one to follow, because it’s above the water, and the way fairly free from debris.
I slow to a stroll, taking in the beauty of the vast ruins. There’s peace to be found in aloneness – a quiet I know I cannot get within the crowded city complex. It was created, they say, to house a few thousands of workers and support workers, to keep the ports going. But now there are tens of thousands – a real, thriving city. I can’t breathe when I’m in there. The air is stale. I’m stifled. But out here …
I take a turn through a quadrangle. The buildings on all sides are at least 5 storeys. Any dead bodies in there have long decayed – just spirit now, wind. There’s a court in the middle. I stop for a while, looking at the hoops on either end. They’re rusty now. I know if I smashed into them they’d only crumble to dust. I smile and walk again, wondering at my tranquillity. Maybe the rest has done me some good. I’ve not been sleeping and so the nap in the house must have calmed me. But that’s not it; I was on edge when I woke up. It was the running. I’m walking with a spring in my steps now, almost tempted to laugh. Past the quadrangle, through a hallway, and now on the other side of the building. Then I see them.
They gaze at me with bulging eyes; their mouths open to speak words I can’t hear. They’re dead; how long ago I don’t know. This is the work of the outsiders.
As if in response to my questions they appear all around me, the 5-storey buildings springing to life. I hear their voices, but these are no longer men, what they speak no longer words in the strictest sense. I bow my head in a show of humility. They are predators, and this is their territory. I never know why they give me passage each time they show up, now here, sometimes there. And I’m sure the four scarecrows of decaying flesh behind me also wonder. But they do, this forgotten tribe.
Men – such as they are – all in protective suits and gas masks and carrying kerosene lanterns, emerge from all floors of the buildings.
I continue to walk, hearing the strange noises they make to one another. Down here, in this narrow alley, buildings on either side of me, it almost looks like a coronation. I’m walking toward my crown.
And then they’re gone.
I breathe a sigh of relief, and continue on.