Race, Rice And Free Wifi



Before I met Agarwal, I’d already heard of him. My Zambian pal told me about an Indian TV presenter who was in danger of dropping out of MBA class because he couldn’t juggle it with his full time job. It was an odd problem to have, most non EU students we know could hardly find a consistent part time gig in the zero contract hours economy.

Agarwal , a vegetarian, was working  illegally in a Pakistani butchery. He was loading and offloading  the carcass of pigs and cattle, usually doing a daily twelve hour night shift. I hardly seen him before, he was often too tired to make lectures.  Legally, a foreign graduate student should not work for more than twenty hours a week in the UK.

The day Lackson brought him to me, I was in front of the Student Union building, drinking cheap  fair trade coffee, having a cigarette break. It was early summer , we were preparing for exams and the coming holidays.

Lackson had told me Agarwal needed a place to squat urgently. The butchery was up for a health and safety inspection, workers sleeping in the premises was not acceptable.

 

I had a huge loft room in an apartment I shared with two other guys, an Italian and a Pakistani. Agarwal needed a place for the rest of the term. Just for two weeks, may be three. Just long enough so he can finish paying his tuition fees before the University logs him off the school intranet by semester end.

Lackson was knew  Agarwal well.Lackson  said that he would have taken him  in but  for the fact that he was living with African relatives.  They were both around the same age, that means I was like five years older than both of them.

 

They had met during the matriculation orientation period and had become close, often studying together.  Agarwal  was great at Calculus and Lackson had up to date class notes. I used to borrow Lackson’s notes too and although we were not doing the same specialization. He was very sociable and would often drop by at my crib as he was passing by.

I had told Lackson I’ll think about the request he made on Agarwal’s behalf, which is my way of saying no. I didn’t really like the idea of him giving out favours with my resources.  Then Lackson came up with this idea that we all hang out together, no strings attached. I would like Agarwal, he said.  

As I waited in the early summer sun, I wondered why Agarwal was depending on the charity of strangers and whether, if tables were turned, he would take in an African. I wondered what was in it for me.

They came into view and walked up to me. Lackson shook my hand and hugged me rather too affectionately. Agarwal didn’t wait to be introduced.
He didn’t try to shake hands. He just smiled and said, ” Hi, have you eaten ?  I brought some rice curry. Have you tried that? It is spicy, like Jollof. ”  I shook my head and smiled in response to what were obviously rhetorical questions for then he turned and walked ahead of us into the Student Union building.

I stubbed out my cigarette and followed him, and Lackson came in the rear. It had started to drizzle anyway , it was getting cold outside and there was free WiFi inside the building.

Operation Aboki Dole

“Do you work here?” , the man in blue polo shirt and khaki trousers asked.  He was tall and slim and fit, had his head hair closely cropped and his face clean shaven  and you could not tell if he was forty or younger. There was something martial about his tone, the way he walked, the gaze of his eyes. You did not answer his query. Instead, you adjusted your camera strap to make it fit tighter around your waist. Instead you asked him. “Do you come here often?’’

You are alone in the woods; just the two of you and your paths had just crossed seconds ago. You had come for a leisurely walk along what used to be the unspoiled lagoon front wilderness beyond the town.  You brought your camera along; in past walks you had seen rare blue and purple breasted birds. You wanted to take pictures if they happen upon you again. No such luck this time. Much of the land had been parceled away, the trees uprooted and the earth flattened by bigly earth-movers, now nature lay despoiled and defeated, pulverized into commodities to be traded in layouts on surveyors ’papers unto the encroaching urbanity.

He chose to answer your question, in his own way. “I am a security”, he says with unnecessary severity, ” I serve and protect”.  You shrug inwardly. These security types generally have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, you think. You decide to humor him. There are a number of construction companies hereabout so you ask,

“Which company do you work with? ”

“Ï am a soldier”, he says, “I don’t work for companies. I go anywhere I am sent to defend”. Then, after a beat, he continues, “I fought in Maiduguri under Operation Zaman Lafiya”.

You stretch out your hand to shake him, he takes it. “Congratulations “, you say, “You went and came back safely”. He nods, smiling. He says, “I always knew I would come back safely because my conscience is clear”. You don’t know what to say to that.

The two of you walk back towards the bus stop at tarred road, towards a gang of construction workers waiting to hail taxis and tricycles on the way home at the end of a work day, away from the uncleared bush areas. You are comfortably silent and you sense he feels you are friends already. He is telling you about his other military postings. He does not notice that you are bored and tired. You have been trekking in the woods for over two hours.

You are both soon by the bus stop. Vehicles are scarce, the crowd of people waiting for transportation thicken.  It is now after 7 pm and you wish you weren’t here anymore. No, you certainly do not want with this crowd.

Across the road, on the other side of the bus stop is a bush bar, built with palm fronds and raffia and cut wood trunks. You have never been there before but you know that kind of place by reputation. They serve palm wine and the local bootleg gin along with roast venison or pepper soup.  Their meat selection is eclectic; they would offer any game from rodents to antelopes, from reptiles to lower primates. Their tamest is often fried dog meat.

“Let us have a drink’’, he invites you, gesturing at the bush bar. ” I’ll rather go home and freshen up first”, you reply. You are generally nice to the uniformed guys around town but you know it is futile making friends with a man who is trained to kill at a moment’s notice. And they drink like fish.

Your refusal does not get rid of him. He is telling you a story or his philosophy of life. You are only half listening. “Everywhere I go, I try to catch fun “he says with a smirk, “And if I find a nice pillowy pair of breasts, I rest my head on it”. He inches closer and you catch the unmistakable stench of palm wine yeast; he is slightly inebriated.

“That is the only way to live life”, you agree with him, sucking up.  “One cannot come and die. But I need to get back to my area before it is late. ’’ You reply is cliché but this is not exactly high society conversation. You are just trying to follow peace with all men, as the saying goes. And frankly, you are tired. He however still to wants to tag along with you; he seems not to be interested in going anywhere else unlike everyone.

“Where is your area?’ he asks you. You point westwards.

You are restive. You are too impatient to wait for a cab. Instead, you hail a commercial motorcycle, an Okada and say you are going back to town.  The charge is exorbitant but you agree to pay. You are surprised when your new acquaintance hops along.

“The two of you will pay double” the Okada rider demanded, not so politely.

“I will not pay nothing” his retorts.

You conciliate. “Let us go, I will pay for the two of us”.

At the first junction, just at the entrance into town, you get down. Your new acquaintance is taken by surprise. “Are you not going beer drinking again? ” he asks, even as the Okada rider drives him away.

‘Not today”, you reply softly , almost to yourself, as you stroll away towards your nearby farmstead.

 

Two weeks later, on Sunday, after a rather busy day at the farm doing back breaking labor, you drive into town, to your favorite watering hole and order small bottles of chilled lite beer to cool the afternoon heat a little bit . You are on your second bottle when a waiter, a nubile figure you had not previously noticed, brings you a bottle of lager beer.

You protest, “I didn’t request for this”. But she smiles your protest away and points in the direction of a slim man in reflective shades, sitting across another guy. He smiles at you and you wave thanks. It takes a minute before you realize where you had met him once before, in the woods, outside town.

After a few minutes, he tells you, “you need to taste this woman’s pepper soup. Should the waiter bring it to your table or will you join us here? “.

You know you don’t need to taste a pepper soup you have eaten so many times before but it is bad form to be rude to a friendly stranger. He has intruded through your defenses like a military operation; call it Operation Aboki Dole, friendship by force. You rise up to join his table and introduce  yourself.