August 28, 2019

The Smell of Cemetery

By Akin Adesokan






The moment Dahunsi stepped out the plane and breathed In the Lagos air, he found the air smelling of cemetery. A vague smell, it is true, but one tangible enough to register as blood mixed with wet earth even in the unaccustomed sense of someone encountering a place given to daily transformation. He had been gone from the country eleven years and in this period five military regimes had ruled, each creating states that doubled in number with a new regime. Before he left to study political science at Harvard University, he was an indigene of Ogun state. Now, after two tamperings with his state, one of the least affected in the state creation dramas, Dahunsi came to be known as an indigene of Ota state. The name of the new state belonged to a small town between Lagos and Abeokuta, capital of the old Ogun. It was a town with fewer inhabitants than a Boeing 747 could contain and the only reason it qualified to be called a state was its good fortune to have one of its illustrious sons in the federal cabinet at that point in time. The cabinet member was illustrious because he was in government, which was something; a year before the coup that bulldozed his regime, the Junta of Thirty, to power on the day a red rain fell in Lagos the man, a captain in the army, had been a cashier in the paymaster’s section of the supplies and logistics department. He had always felt cheated; how could he, a captain, be a cashier when mere warrant officers got appointed as aides-de-camp to state governors?

But he was clever enough to inform on a colleague of his whose misfortune it was to come from a family in alleged opposition to his, and be far worthier and more prosperous than he as officer and man. That soldier was Dahunsi’s uncle, a brigadier and adjutant-general of the army, reputed to be more concerned about professional rectitude than anything else. Captain Olaiya was in Brigadier Makanju’s house one evening sharing with him burukutu, the rare sorghum wine and news of restiveness back at home over the noncreation of Ota state.

‘Do you believe our people are unreasonable, this noise they make each time we go home?’ Captain Olaiya asked his senior colleague. ‘They don’t know it’s not easy. And we are not even in government.’

The brigadier had in fact lost the chance to become a member of the supreme military council, the highest ruling body in the country to an officer two ranks his junior. He drank sparingly and spoke as if he was miserly with words.

‘Soldiers in government is terrible enough’, he said. ‘It’s like a blight, but the mind of everyone here is blighted. Our people are simply unreasonable’.

Even if his reference was not to Ota people, Captain Olaiya understood it to be.

‘Yes!’ he screamed, spilling his wine in excitement. ‘They think it’s easy to influence government policy. Well, let them think so, if all they want is to get by and by.’

‘But that’s what we all do’, observed Brigadier Makanju, his voice distant and entranced. ‘If I had my way, I would drive all soldiers out of politics. It’s ridiculous.’

Captain Olaiya was quiet when he heard this. He looked away, past his host sitting opposite him. Brigadier Makanju’s wife once told him that the wife of another man from Ota had overheard Captain Olaiya complaining that the brigadier’s family had been responsible, first for his slow rise in the army and then the obscure and undeserved postings that were his lot. He had reportedly traced this streak of animosity through six generations, beginning with differences in war strategies in the decades in the nineteenth century after the British had annexed Lagos. He had located the root in a spell: the spell being irrevocable – the supposed originator died without revealing its secret – Captain Olaiya, according to the story Mrs. Makanju heard, decided to break it by sacrificing anyone remotely linked with the originator.

Brigadier Makanju was not disturbed by this report. On the contrary, he was amused. Then annoyed. But not wanting to encourage his wife’s suspicion, he replied:’ It’ s a lie’, and hoped that was the end of the matter.

‘What is a lie?’ his wife asked. ‘Who is lying? Me, or Mrs. Sanusi or him?

‘All of you. Don’t listen to idle talk, madam, else it turns you into an idle talker. Instead, take a good care of your children.’ He wished his wife would drop the issue, but she was stung by that nonchalance, by the impersonal style of referring to her as madam, then counselling her about her duties as mother as though she were just a sulking widow bothering his life.

‘You call it idle talk, but all know that you have to be very careful’, she insisted.

‘I’ll try.’

‘But-‘ Mrs Makanju continued, but the brigadier quite politely drew closer to her and felt her forehead.


‘What is it?’ her earlier protestation returned as snappy query and she turned away saying, ‘There is nothing wrong with me at all.’

‘In that case, our lunch may be getting late!’ He crossed over to the dining table and locked the door behind him.

Several months later, as Captain Olaiya entered the house, Mrs. Makanju looked at the brigadier in a way that sought to bring the scuttled discussion to mind. When her husband would not confirm he had connected incident and visitor, she said, before taking her leave.

‘Mrs. Sanusi sends her greetings. And her husband too.’

‘Oh, ‘ Brigadier Makanju nodded. ‘Thanks.’

At the door, she stopped.

‘And I hope you still remember she told me to tell you the other day? ‘

‘I still remember.’

-Excerpted from a fuller story with the same title, published in Trembling Leaves, an anthology edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and published by the Lagos chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)… Adesokan, the author, is a writer, scholar and novelist with research interests into twentieth and twenty-first century African and African American/African Diaspora literature and cultures. He is currently the associate professor of comparative literature at Indiana University Bloomington. His works will be appearing in from time to time.


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