The Adventures of Saudiq Amao- Palm
Saudiq Amao sat along the back carriage of the large Mercedes truck heading North—his back to the setting sun. In front of him, the desert sky bathed everything in dark earth tones. The landscape was arid, with a few meager desert shrubs scattered over the sea of sand grains on the Sahel desert floor. The engine roared. The truck bobbed up and down over the undulating sand dunes towards the Mediterranean, weaving through imaginary paths only smugglers would know. In tow, were two similar trucks, brimming over—as was his— with passengers. Amber hazard lights pulsated against the sepia of dusk, through an ashen haze of dust clouds. Passengers sat in tight clusters, women and children on benches in the centre, protected from the elements by the men— the human shields. People spilled out of the back of truck, men hung from the side railings, some sat on worn mattresses placed on the driver's cabin, legs dangling off the sides of the truck, holding on to the air for safety.
Saudiq sat between a man who was twice his size, called Gabriel, and another, whose lazy shoulder squashed him in from the other side, folding him almost in half; so much that he thought the tips of his shoulders just might touch. He gave up moving his arms and remained in the vice, a scowl on his face. His teeth grated against tiny sand particles and the odor of unwashed men tickled his throat.
If he wasn't so disgruntled already by the fact that he couldn’t pacify his growling stomach with the 2-day old boiled eggs hidden safely in his grey, twine sack, he would have grumbled to Gabriel about his discomfort and complained that he couldn't feel his feet. In fact, ever since they left the Nigerian border, his discomfort had greatly increased. The man with the lazy arm and water-proof jacket had fallen asleep on him, just as they left Kano and didn’t wake up until they arrived in the city of Zinder, Niger.
Why were they all dressed alike, anyway, with puffy water-proof jackets- faces cocooned in neck scarves and mismatched head-warmers, wide eyes behind cheap, plastic sunglasses, the desert’s generously buffed coat of dust on their faces? Some way to enter Europe. He looked down at his second-hand faux-leather jacket and worn sneakers. His Kangol tropic hat sat in the middle of his round head. He, on the other hand, was Europe-ready.
In Zinder, he had handed his travel fare to the man in the white turban. and even whiter dansiki, a chewing stick wagged from his lips as he chewed. His dark eyes gave Saudiq a quick look. “Sand”, the man simply said and tossed his chin at Saudiq, holding the end of his white scarf- he threw it over his shoulder. Then he turned his attention languidly to the next passenger.
"Ehn?"Saudiq followed him with his gaze. "Wetin this one dey talk?" Saudiq mumbled. “Which sand?”
It was endless, all around them- in the air, in their ears, in their teeth, in their eyes. Everywhere.
Saudiq wondered how much his cousin, Abbas sold sand for to the construction companies back in Ijebu Ode. He felt a little better thinking about Abbas selling sand to survive. He, on the other hand, would be in Switzerland in two weeks.
His stomach growled again. His mouth watered as he imagined the pasty texture of the eggs on his tongue, tiny, smooth bits hiding in dark corners of his mouth— its vulgar aroma traveling up his nose. His stomach twisted.
It would be ok. He would be in Switzerland soon.
Ah, Switzerland. He hadn’t even known this place existed until two days ago.
“Everyone is rich”, Gabriel said, his voice always louder than necessary,“A land flowing with milk and money.”
He could taste the milk, he could smell the money. He could taste the fresh, cool waters bathing his taste buds and tickling his soul.
“They have mountains”, Gabriel had added, as they made their way to board their truck at Zinder. Already, Saudiq could feel the cool mountain breeze waft around his rounded frame on the streets of Switzerland. Yes, he could see the streets, the lights, the women— of course, Abbas would still be selling sand. A smile tugged at his lips.
Suddenly, the truck swerved, snatching him back to the present. Showers of sand rained on them as the truck dodged invincible obstacles littered on the desert floor. The passengers yelled at each turn. Saudiq fell on the hurdle of crouching bodies. The two other trucks in the convoy roared behind them, taking the same snake-like turns in harmonized formation, hazard lights flashing in a pulsating panic. Saudiq gripped his cap securely on his head and held on to his sack.
The chorus of protests undulated like the the sand hills that rolled beneath them.
What was happening?
“Gabreh!” He yelled. Gabriel held on to a railing with one hand, and to the scarf that covered his lower face with the other. The truck threw them to the right now. Saudiq grabbed Gabriel, his eyes wide for a moment, before dropping into narrow slits to keep the sand out, “Gabre-“ a whirl of hot air danced by, spraying his mouth with a generous amount of sand.
"Kai*!", Saudiq complained, coughing, spitting and clearing his throat with severe grunts, still his teeth gritted on little sand crystals, his face distorted into a pucker of discomfort, his lips widened to the sides, and his tongue rubbed slowly along the roof of his mouth.
Just as sudden as it began, the swerving ceased, the truck rode evenly over the sand dunes.
The other travelers hurdled together and mumbled loudly in languages Saudiq couldn't understand. Soon, the cool desert evening whispered to them and before long, heads fell forward and back in sweet slumber- some standing, some sitting. The women slept first. Saudiq longed to sit with them as the evening air dipped into spiked chills.
He touched his front pocket to be sure all was in place. At Zinder, he had bought some sardines and garri for the journey and had hidden his money securely in the front pocket of his jacket, where he could see any wandering hands in this human cluster.
"Why you no palm am?" Gabriel had asked, while they were in Zinder. They had sat on discarded cement blocks, eating sardines and garri near a trash dump close to the truck park, two other travelers, Jude and Martins with them.
“Palm?", Saudiq asked, eyes riveted on Gabriel, who rested his back against a wall with a red ‘x’ painted on it. If anyone knew how to survive this journey, it was these young boys he had set up camp with.
All he had to do, Gabriel said, was roll his eight single 100 dollar bills with aluminum foil, wrap some cellotape around them and relax.
The others burst into laughter. Saudiq looked on.
"Ehn-and den wetin go happen? Then what?”
“Baba Amao, you go relax na!"
They snickered as they nibbled on their lunch.
He hissed and looked from one face to the next.
"Shey na juju?" He asked,"Na charm? Is it charm?"
They burst out laughing again, Jude, the one with the crossed eyes threw his head back and clutched the legs of his trousers where they met, staggering in his mirth along the wall.
”You go put am inside anus!" Gabriel exclaimed.
"Thief can not reach it for there!" Martins added.
Saudiq’s mouth dropped open, exposing the pale, chewed flesh of sardines on his tongue.
"God forbid." He cried, throwing a snap of his fingers over his head. Gabriel burst out laughing along with two other young men.
"If you relax, e no go pain you!"
"God forbid!" He would never be able to adapt to this life to which these boys were so adept. He agreed to wrap his money in the foil and tape but wouldn't go any further.
Suddenly, the truck swerved again and came to an abrupt stop. The driver and two men in the truck cabin jumped out, speaking rushed syllables into walkie talkies, the antennas flapping wildly. One of them broke into a run towards the other trucks, his long tunic flapping.
"Allah, protect us", said Someone on the truck.
"Wetin dey happen?" Saudiq asked no one , his palms were beginning to sweat and his heart ran amouk in his chest. Murmurs broke out on the truck.
“Thief", Someone responded
"Jesus!" A woman cried. Panic broke out. The railing-hangers dove into the back of the truck, those who sat on the driver's cabin jumped down unto the sand, scrabbling beneath the vehicle. Some laid low, the women yelped and one of them kept lamenting in an agitated cry of "Yelleleyeleleyelle."
"Shut up!" the smugglers snapped in hushed tones. They turned off the engines and joined the passengers in their hiding places beneath the trucks .
The movements and cries ceased gradually until there was absolutely no sound.
Saudiq recited his prayers. He should have listened to Gabriel when he suggested that he "Palm" his money.
His hands shook, as he fingered the silvery rolls of dollars in pocket. His breath ragged and labored. He inserted them into the empty cigarette box Gabriel had given him earlier and tossed it into his grey twine sack.
Muffled soft sobs came from the hurdled bodies. Voices hollered in the distance and the distressed clangs of an old vehicle echoed through the night.
Nothing moved. Breaths ceased.
They remained this way for about an hour.
The crackle of the walkie-talkie broke the silence, followed by a voice and in an instant, the drivers jumped into their truck cabin, roared up the engines and drove like they were insane. By the time the trucks rolled into the town of Agadez, Saudiq had the end of Gabriel's scarf around his lower face. It reeked of sweat and other substances, but at least the sand particles stayed out of his mouth.
The truck pulled into the travel hub of Agadez, and its passengers jumped off the sides of the truck to the streets below. Saudiq alighted into the busy streets with Gabriel and Jude. He put the cigarette box in his front pocket and followed them through the throng of passengers and locals. They found a wooden stall with a thick rubber tarpaulin as a roof and bought some water. The trader’s lean face lit up when he saw Saudiq’s tribal marks, he pointed to his own and spoke in a rapid tongue they did not understand.
Saudiq's eye wandered to the truck to make sure it was still there.
It sat there in the scorching sun- his vehicle to a better life. To Switzerland.
His eyes wandered around the market. There were hawkers, travelers, locales. It was no Kurmi market or Mapo market but it was busy enough. Dust rose as travelers boarded and alighted their trucks, hawkers yelled at the top of their voice, goats loitered, unafraid of people, little children played with sand and the horn of a bicycle tutted repeatedly.
In all the midst, he saw her.
She wore a floral patterned skirt that stopped mid-calf, her right hand held a scarf beneath her chin, covering her head and upper body. Her wide hips swayed under the layers of fabric, rustling the hem of the veil that fell over her full bottom. Soft whips of brown hair peaked out beneath her scarf, fanning her temples.
Kai! A smile creased the corners of Saudiq's eyes. He stood rooted to the spot, in the midst of the rush, pressed his Kangol cap closer to his scalp and pushed through the crowd towards her.
"Papa Amao", the younger men called, "Where you dey go?"
Saudiq’s feet moved as though beckoned by a desert flute. He was floating on something and once again, he couldn’t feel his feet. He watched her beautiful hands disappear for a minute and emerge again with a bank note in her long brown-tipped fingers, to pay a trader. Saudiq reached out and stopped her hand, his face never leaving hers, his breath held, his lips pulled back, his gold tooth bare. He tucked into the trader’s hand, a 500 franc note. The woman nodded slowly in appreciation, her eyes dropping to the ground, long, full lashes fanning her cheeks and a smile may have appeared beneath her scarf.
She turned around and walked quickly through the crowd, the flowers on her skirt came alive as they rustled in a light, hot breeze, her hand clenched her scarf, her hips swayed, a musky fragrance trailed. Saudiq followed.
Saudiq Amao woke up slowly. His head felt glued to the floor. He was in an alley, the stench of old urine lay low close to his face. His memory was hazy but he remembered her soft hands on his face, her brown tipped finger nail teasing his fat lips. He remembered the whispers and giggles. They had sat in a wooden shed, she offered him a milky beverage in an old tin can. Her throaty laugh rippled in his mind. Then silence, her face was blurry. His lids drooped heavily. Then it went dark.
He groaned as he sat up on the muddy stairs in the dark, alley, the night stars twinkled down between uneven thatched roofs.
The truck. He hurriedly scrambled to his feet. They had to be in Niamey by nightfall.
“Gabreh”, he croaked, his throat parched and irritable. He grabbed his breast suddenly, the cigarette box was missing. His sack was gone. The money. The eggs.
“Kai! Kai! Kai!”
Saudiq scampered out of the alley and stood beneath the glimmering sky, eyes wide. He looked to the right and left, over his shoulder and into the distance. The busy market was empty. There was no truck. No Gabriel. No desert beauty. Just empty stalls and sand.
Saudiq Amao sat on the large lorry heading south, his eyes were hidden behind big black sunglasses, his head wrapped high in a turban and a scarf stretched across his face. He sat between a man and a younger girl, his shoulders leaning heavily on them. Three months baking building bricks raised enough money to take him back to Nigeria. He looked into the sunset and shifted in his seat, his legs wide apart. The young girl looked up at him, eyes wide, her delicate lashes coated with a light coat of desert dust. She squeezed a small bag of water into her mouth and then stretched it out to him, but he gracefully declined. For up his bowels, rested 2 short straws of silver aluminum-wrapped 100 dollar bills. Water could greatly hamper this method of courier.
He smiled into her wide eyes.
He'd have a sip once they arrived in Zinder. He promised. Just a sip.
Copyright ©2016 by IkeOluwapo Adegboye
Kai** (Nigerian slang) used as an expression of anguish, horror, rage, or other strong emotion, often with humorous intent.