By Nwokocha Chijioke
Two days after Kene disappeared, his sister and his lover raced to the police station to file a missing person’s report, and even now, standing by the dusty station counter a few minutes later, Zinny’s chest is heaving, and her neckline is darkened with sweat.
“Ekene Njabulo, you say?”
“Madam!” The huffy police officer, who introduced himself as Inspector Paul, yells impatiently.
“Hmmm,” She replies, only now realizing how tight her sandals are. Her toes are starting to itch.
Nwanneka, her assistant, is at the other end in a long purple gown that flatters her dark skin and clings to her thighs. Her once-fresh face is now languid from the day they had. This morning, she settled on a soft plaid shirt tucked into angry denim pants with thigh patches and rushed to her salon to attend to morning customers. She is sure none of her customers would recognize her now.
“How old is your brother, and what does he do?” the police officer queries, eyes squinted at Nwanneka in unmasked sexual interest.
“Twenty-three,” Zinny answers. “He works for a tech firm, and that is his wife,” she lies, hoping the man would become more subtle with his flirtation. It fails.
“Tech.” he repeats much slowly, punctuating with an ‘umph!’ before jotting it down on a very thin paper that looks like it was yanked out of a book. There are four other people in the room, but her eyes rest on an elderly man cuffed to a younger version of himself. The younger man is in tears and is speaking simultaneously as the older man. The officer attending to them looks like she’d rather be anyplace else.
A few minutes later, just before Inspector Paul requests that they follow him to his office, a middle-aged woman rushes into the slightly smoky room crying – her brown wrapper loosening. The woman fiercely wraps her arms around the chained boy, who breaks down as well.
Zinny notices then that there is a burning in her chest.
Ekene was the first person who mentioned the start of the protest to Zinny. He was leaning on the kitchen door in his shorts and a large grey t-shirt, casually telling her about it while she warmed their leftover white soup for breakfast. He told her there was a video on Twitter of a special police squad that gunned down a young man, took his Lexus, and sped off. He casually throws off his intention to join the people who were already protesting like he was simply taking an order.
“You wan go?” Zinny jokes. “Wit dis ya hair so?” She was pointing at Kene’s light-brown dreads, now flying in various directions – the aftermath of his relentless tossing when he slept.
“That is kind of the point, Sisi. Why should anyone see dreads as indicative of roguery? It is just hair. Isi.” He was smiling like he had very little strength. He stared at his left palm, then nibbled at the dark purple coating on two of his fingernails.
Zinny found his nail-biting somewhat upsetting. His t-shirts with lecherous or atheist one-liners too. But then, Ekene was a beautiful boy with his deep-set of dimples and dark skin. Fine boys get whatever they want.
“See the person talking about profiling. It’s almost like you beg to be profiled.”
Zinny regretted those words immediately they left her thin lips, so she turned towards her dish and started stirring her soup.
“There’s no such thing as too much pepper in white soup,” she tried after a strained minute passed between them.
“Yeah.” He chuckled, and Zinny was reminded why he was her favorite sibling.
On the first day of the protest, a man carrying a black sling bag across his slim shoulders walked into Zinny’s salon. His very thick afro needed a run-through, but his clothes looked expensive. He wore Air Jordans and smelt of wood and lemons. He had a wig in his sling bag that needed fixing.
“I’m not sure what it needs, but I need it ready as soon as you can manage. I’ll pay whatever you charge.”
“It needs to be steamed, combed out, and its closure needs to be fixed. You’re in the right place.” She smiled as she took the hair from his hands.
He introduced himself as Chima, and soon he was telling stories of the things he encountered on the road. He was funny and charming, but Zinny wondered why someone would open up so quickly about his life to strangers. He was experienced in handling his emotions. He smirked and chuckled instead of laughing, sighed, and raised his eyebrows in mockery.
Chima dropped his number after he paid the standard deposit, leaving Zinny and everyone else wondering why a man walked around with a ripped wig that needed fixing.
“Madam, please, how much do you charge for Ghana weaving?” Mrs. Hadija, one of her steady customers, asked.
“7k, ma.” She heard one of her stylists respond.
“Did I ask you?”
“You didn’t have to be rude to the girl. Haba!” another woman getting her crochet done snapped, bending the head to the side for the stylist to keep working.
It wasn’t like she was a nicer person; there is simply an unspoken understanding between a customer and an attendant in beauty salons: you supported the person making your hair even if you disagreed with them. Nobody wants a hairdresser that nudges your head too hard or grips your hair too tightly.
After the last customer left the salon, Zinny sat with her assistant to balance the ledger while the other girls cleaned up. The new tunes of Made in Lagos played from her speakers.
“I know that man that came here today, ma,” Nwanneka said.
Zinny was nodding off the soft baseline of – you don’t need no other body...
“He is some kind of leader at the protest,” she said in Igbo, her voice a little firmer.
Zinny’s interest was piqued. But because she didn’t watch the news or follow any updates, she could only wonder what the protest felt like.
Did they march across the city angrily, destroying things as she and other students did in university when the administration sold them fake laptops?
Did they sit on the ground and sing patriotic songs?
“How’s Kene?” Nwanneka asked, her left brow quivering as she tried to hide her smile.
“He’s fine, Lizzy. You can ask me about him anytime. You don’t have to be shy about it.” Zinny said in Igbo with kind eyes.
She knew the girl liked her brother. She also knew when the price of a bottle of sprite and meat pie wasn’t calculated. She didn’t encourage it, but she thought it was sweet.
It was Kene she was worried about. It was as though he was constantly looking for something through life, and it kept eluding him. She wished he would stop wearing his desperation like skin or share some of the questions that cloaked his eyes when he looked at her.
However, hope perched on their roof the evening he returned from the first march. His eyes shone when he talked, and his laughter was like water.
By Friday, the third day of the protest, the price of attachments had doubled. The two-day protest dragged on to the third. Kene went out with confidence in heaps every day but returned prissy and unwilling to entertain any of her questions. The desperation had returned. On such nights, he only spoke when he ate, and it was to tell her to stop watching a particular news channel for updates on the protest.
“Sisi, these people have been compromised.” He said with a scoff and continued eating.
She wanted to laugh and tell him how he sounded like a conspiracy theorist but something about the pain with which he said it made Zinny believe him. She believed it, and it scared her that she did, so she switched channels.
The next morning, he packed some overnight clothes and said he'd return the next day, but he didn't. Not that day or the next.
Kene asked, and she allowed him to take her to the protest grounds. They went to central Abuja to meet people from Bwari, Gwarinpa, and Lugbe. It was burning hot, but she stood with them for hours through chants and small performances from artists known by only a handful of people. Someone passed around white foiled-covered plastic plates of puff-puff, and she took one.
However, she wasn't sure where they had walked to when a gunshot was fired into the air. Zinny turned to Kene to warn him, but he was already alert, phone in hand. Honks and revving of engines rent the air almost immediately. Then there were two more gunshots, then screams and curses. People ran across the road in every direction. They had cardboard and posters and painted t-shirts.
After the third gunshot, Zinny realized that the commotion was from behind. People were running right past them. This was when she started to panic.
“They wan off us o. Make una find una way. Jesus!” A young man with a massive beard that moved as furiously as he spoke screamed into her face. Or maybe it was the corper that she flirted with briefly when they arrived that was yelling.
Zinny reached into her small waist bag for her car keys as she ran – Kene’s palm firmly tucked into her left hand. Honks were now going off behind them. Zinny could see some hefty men alight from vans to grab running people; some had guns. Some sticks. As they made their way through the running warm bodies, people grabbed at cars, yelling for them to be opened.
Zinny just kept at it through the frenzied crowd towards her blue sedan, her heart hammering against her ribs. Kene said something about a dead body and a woman shouting for her sister, and then she couldn't hear him. She spun around quickly only to meet various bodies rushing into her, and the only thing she could think of was when she lost her grip on her mother's hands in Aria-Aria market in Aba and how she couldn’t leave her mother’s bed till days dragged by.
This time, she still couldn't speak for hours, even after she returned home, and videos of them were littered all over Twitter.
Inspector Paul led Zinny and Nwanneka to his large office at the end of the corridor for more questioning. It had blue peeling walls, steel chairs, and fading-green flags behind a huge mahogany desk. He asked if Kene was one of the conveners of the protest, and Zinny wondered if the procedure would be different if they admitted that he was. If she told him that she too was part of 'them.' Even Nwanneka had noticed what had changed - how she'd changed. How she now spent hours analyzing only updates from the protest with her madam, both of them painfully conscious of the weight of Kene's disappearance yet choosing to ignore it.
After filing several statements, they were asked to keep in touch while the police ran their investigation, then the wait began.
First, there was the anxiety, a tight feeling in her chest that neared bursting with each hour, then it turned to fear that crippled, then numbed her. Her apartment wouldn’t stop spinning, and she couldn’t quit drinking. By the fourth day, she had come to the edge of her sanity.
She would shoot out of bed, running, only to wake up right before crashing into the wall, beads of sweat breaking out all over her body.
She’d imagine Kene scared and crying till her eyes swelled and her temples throbbed.
However, a call came in from the University Teaching Hospital a week later. Some old couple found Ekene on their way to an early mass – abandoned and in torn bloodied clothes by the side of the airport road.
He woke up and asked for her.
Nwokocha Chijioke is a law graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka.