Akpanobong looked up at the sky, dollops of sweat trickling down his grimy face. The huge ball of the sun flared and burnt wildly, with circles of hues appearing around it. Akpanobong shook his head gently. He had no wristwatch but with the sun burning so brightly, he was certain it was past mid-day already. It had been a long time since he had decent food – since any member of his family had decent food – and he was certain today was going to be no exception. Before leaving the house earlier in the day, he had promised his aged mother and little sister that he was going to return home before midday with lunch. His stroke-stricken mother who was confined to a wheel chair only nodded wearily. His little sister heaved. It was not the first time Akpanobong would be leaving home with such promise. It had become a tradition and the two members of his family expected the same speech every morning.
Akpanobong who was now sitting by a gutter along Osongama road shook his head again. This was not the life he had wanted – a life where his family’s next meal was down to fate. Ever since he lost his father on his sixteenth birthday some three years ago, the mantle of fatherhood rested on Akpanobong’s little head. He had had to do every menial job out there – from lifting blocks at building sites to picking items from dump sites for sale to recyclers. But today, he had gone round the whole Itiam Etoi village in search of any menial work, yet no luck was forthcoming. Even the dump sites usually scattered all over the village seemed to have been cleared, no thanks to the Operation Keep Akwa Ibom Clean (OKAC) initiated by the Akpabio led government in Akwa Ibom state.
“Unam ikot!” Akpanobong cursed the Governor under his breath. He could not understand why every state policy, initiative or scheme seemed to be targeted at him. The other time, as soon as he purchased an old enang ukwak to join in the ala alog business, the Governor placed a ban on enang ukwak riders; then he decided to get a keke on loan so he could ply transportation business along Wellington Bassey road – a road which led to the State House and other prime areas in the State, but the Governor made a policy restricting the movement of keke drivers in the area. Now, he was into picking recyclable items from waste sites and the Governor thought it necessary to introduce OKAC!
“Abu kpa kpa!” Akpanobong cursed again. He spent the next half-hour wallowing in self-pity as he always did every day. He wished he was able to finish his basic education before his father passed away; he wished he had a Politician uncle; he wished his mother was not sick; he wished he could speak english; he wished….
As he made to return home and break the usual sad news to his people, he saw Utibe walking down the street towards him. Utibe, a short stocky fellow was one of the local boys around with a similar background with Akpanobong, but Utibe had better education. He had at least, attained Primary six education and he could speak a little english.
“Akpan,” Utibe called on getting to him. “I have been looking for you everywhere in the village,” he said in Ibibio.
Akpanobong sighed. He picked a stone and threw it at an imaginary bird.
“I went to play ball in the school field,” he responded in Ibibio.
Utibe knew it was a lie and he let a wide grin sit on his face.
Akpanobong, who thought he had been found out asked, “Nsido?”
“Nkpo idogo. Nothing.”
After a short while, Akpanobong enquired, “Nsinam yak anyom?”
Not wanting to waste any time, Utibe replied in Ibibio, “I was looking for you because I think I have found a job that could make us quick money.”
A previously downcast Akpanobong now looked at his friend with glints of excitement spreading across his face.
“Ame doh sure? Really?”
“Ndoko na,” Akpanobong pleaded with his friend to tell him what it was straight away.
“I heard the President is on a visit to the state and he’ll be coming to Itiam Etoi to commission the new transformer.”
“The organisers need some locals to join them in controlling the crowd. I have an insider who told me they need boys who are tall and built who can forestall any breach of the peace. Ummm, you know I don’t quite cut it. But you do.”
Akpanobong stole a quick glance at himself. Finally, was something good about to come out of him?!
“The organisers are currently doing some screening of well-built boys at Ibom Hall,” Utibe continued. “I hear if you passed the screening, they’ll give you fifty thousand naira on the spot and after the President is done with the commissioning, they’ll give you another fifty thousand naira.”
Akpanobong could feel his eyeballs pop out of their sockets at the mention of the amount he would be paid just for being tall. He jumped to his feet, wiping his face and dusting his shirt. He could not wait to get to Ibom Hall.
“Tek idem. Calm down,” Utibe cautioned. “The screening is not difficult. They’ll ask you just one simple and straight forward question. That’s what they’re asking everyone. This is what you’ll answer….”
Utibe furnished his dear friend with all the information he would need to succeed at the screening. Utibe knew that his own welfare and that of his family for the month now rested on the shoulders of Akpanobong. He and Akpanobong could not afford to fail.
Akpanobong managed to make his way through the crowd at the Ibom Hall gate and got a tag number that will be called in next. It seemed like every male child in the state was at that venue. Even the fifty something year old local “youth” tout leaders who terrorised Itiam Etoi village were on that ground.
Akpanobong’s number was called next and he could not be happier leaving behind the old boys of Itiam Etoi. He walked into the hall and was greeted by a panel of five men and one woman who conducted the screening.
Before going on to ask him what made him think he was qualified for the job, the woman decided to first throw a little poser at Akpanobong.
“Congratulations to you and all the good people of Akwa Ibom state,” she started. “The Supreme Court recently awarded seventy six oil wells previously belonging to Cross Rivers State to your state. It’s only unfortunate that the issue of oil bunkering is so rampant in this state. His Excellency, Mr President who will be here later today has promised war on oil bunkerers. What is your take on this illegal act of oil bunkering?”
Akpanobong smiled sheepishly, took a few seconds to recollect the answer Utibe had given him earlier and then responded, “I think this is a very honourable work irrespective of what any other person thinks. You don’t get to have the opportunity to do it every day, so when you get your chance, you have to take it. Me, and a lot of boys out there love it. You won’t understand what it really means to us unless you’re in our shoes. Thank God for my height, size and build. It means I am able to do the job effortlessly. Do you know I once killed a lion while watching over my mother’s goats in the field? That goes to show how strong I am. So anyone who says he’s going to cause a war while I’m on this job, I will take care of such person, no matter who he is…”
Akpanobong noticed that as he spoke, some of the panelists were jotting down furiously, some were taking photographs of him, while the rest were placing phone calls. He could hear them call names like “SSS, NSCDC, SARS…..” He stood there smiling, astonished at how much effect his little speech has had on them. He could not wait to move on to the next stage.
1. Unam ikot: Idiot
2. Enang ukwak: Motorcycle
3. Ala alog: “okada business”
4. Abu kpa kpa: An Ibibio word expressing disgust
5. Nsido?: What is it?
6. Nkpo idogo: Nothing
7. Nsinam yak anyom: Why were/are you looking for me?
8. Ame do sure?: Are you sure?
9. Ndoko: Tell me
10. Tek idem: Relax