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My last journey

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It was the worst time to embark on a journey or to do anything important for that matter. The country was just coming out of a religious crisis and the stench of the carcass of the crisis still hung over the lives of the people. While some of us were picking up pieces of our torn lives to see if we could stick them together others had nothing on their mind except vengeance for family, friends and loved ones killed.
Religious conflict between Christians and Muslims was one of the problems that fell on Nigeria like brimstones from the sky, it was one problem that every Nigerian knew was bound to rear its ugly head once in a while. Even those who had never been to the country but had knowledge of its history were hardly ever surprised whenever the Muslim majority in the northern part of the country and the southern part dominated by Christians went for each other's heads all in the name of God and religion.

This latest crisis had started when a petty conflict between a Muslim and a Christian over a business deal gone sour took a new dimension when the Muslim accused the Christian of defaming the name and character of the most important and revered prophet in Islam, Mohammed (S.A.W).

Just as expected, the killings and bloodshed began with each side accusing the other of starting it. Within minutes the wall of friendship and love around Muslims and Christians, which had taken years to build and was still under construction, came crashing down. Muslims who found themselves in Christian dominated areas of the town were forced to embrace dead just like Christians in Muslim dominated areas. No unlucky ones were spared. Men, women and children suddenly found themselves face to face with dead. Peace, love and tolerance were thrown into the trash can while rivalry, hatred, revenge and dead took center stage.

When the killings started the Johnson family found refuge in the wide open arm of our house. Although the killings never reached our own part of the town — confined to the slums and poor parts of the town, the killing could not show its evil face in our neighborhood, which was the enclave of the educated doctors, lawyers, engineers — our parents decided that it was better to err on the side of caution just in case the killings found the strength and boldness to force a way into our area.

Our house was in a well designed and planned area of the town, a housing estate of apartments and bungalows. Trees, flowers and street lights added beauty to the neighborhood, although I can't remember ever seeing the street lights working. The house, a five bedroom bungalow, was on Number 5 Lake Road. Running through the house was mother's artistic touch. As an architect she added a few minor designs here and there that made our house the most beautiful in the area.

We sheltered the Johnsons at our own risk but it was not like we really cared. We had been family friends for as long as I could remember and there was no way we were going to stand aside and watch them killed. We became family friends when father and Mr. Johnson decided that it was not just their work as lawyers in the law firm they both set up after law school that was going to tie them together they took their relationship up a notch and from then on the life of our two families developed an umbilical cord that tied our destiny together.

Mr Johnson was a Christian and Igbo from the south of the country. I never heard him speak Igbo, it was always English; his native tribe was buried deep inside him and was almost impossible to dig out. He was also not a very religious man, hardly ever going to church except on special days like Christmas or weddings. His wife and his only child, Joseph, also followed his lead.

When it came to religion father and Mr. Johnson were not at par. Father was a devout Muslim and community leader, his religion and philanthropy gave him the respect of other Muslims in the area he was the (liman) or leader of the mosque in the neighborhood. Even though most of our Muslim neighbors knew that the Johnson family were staying with us, none of them dared to raise any eyebrow; mynfather's position as a well respected lawyer and philanthropist was enough to shut them up.

Three days after the killings started the dust raised by it began to disperse and the curfew imposed on the town was lifted. With things returning to normalcy the Johnsons decided to travel to their home town Aba for Christmas. Usually I went with them but this time around they left three days earlier, not just because of the recent crisis but also to attend the wedding of a relative.

After they left I was constantly plagued with worry and a strong desire to see my friend Joseph. Each passing day left a hole of loneliness In me. Joseph and I grew up together we were actually born just days apart. He was the perfect example of a good and true friend. He was a short and dark skinned boy, a carbon copy of his father. He was the funniest person I ever knew. He had a way of making me laugh and be happy even when I was sad or angry.

My life was incomplete without him — even when I found a babe to date I never felt comfortable if he was not in the picture and like a true friend he would take himself out of the picture once he was sure I had gotten the girl. We were always there for each other. One time I was fighting with a classmate who was stronger than me and just when it seemed he was through with me Joseph arrived on the scene and without finding out who was at fault jumped in and together we beat the boy up.

As we grew we never allowed our differences in religion to find a place to stay in our life, through our friendship we got to know everything about our different religions.

I was eventually rescued from my loneliness when my parents agreed to let me travel to Aba although it was difficult to convince mother to let me go she still harboured fear over the recent crisis.

"You must be extra carefully and vigilant", she told me, eventually conceding.

A day before Christmas father drove me to the bus station. When we got there the place was devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of passengers, drivers and their conductors, pickpockets and thugs. Most of the Christians staying in the north had made it a tradition to travel to their hometown for Christmas, but because of the recent crisis there were only two eighteen seater buses travelling to the south. When I saw worry begining to creep over Father's face and doubt growing over the journey, I became apprehensive.

"Don't worry father nothing bad will happen", I told him, trying to assure him before he could voice his doubt.

"Call me as soon as you get to Aba".

After he left a shocker awaited me. The bus had a mechanical problem and like most buses used for commercial transport the driver had not deemed it fit to fix the problem. We had to push the bus to get it started. All the passengers including me were angry. I could see the anger clearly written on our faces but only one of used dared to voice his anger.

"What sort of nonsense is this? I paid you money to convey me and you expect me to push the bus. You must be joking!" He shouted at the driver, standing with his arms akimbo and watching us along with four other female passengers.

When the engine eventually picked up we all jumped into the bus but we had to wait for the female passengers to run down to meet us. As I found a seat at the farthest corner of the bus I stole a quick look at the bus driver. The look of resentment he gave the angry passenger said, 'If not for the female passengers I would have left you standing there.'

I chose a window seat to enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside. I love window seats; even the few times I travelled on a plane the window seat had been the best place to view the cloud.

But fate had not decided to be fair to me on this journey for I was forced to sit next to the angry passenger and his mouth just refused to shut up, there were three of us at the back seat of the bus the third passenger immediately went off to sleep as if he knew we were struck with a noisy co-passenger. I envied him as I usually found it hard to sleep on a journey.

"These commercial drivers are really greedy. All they care about is making money. They leave their buses in bad conditions all in the name of profit", he said, trying to justify his earlier action.

As he blabbed on I felt like telling him to shut up. I kept my face glued to the window trying to enjoy the passing Savannah plain. I also tried to shut out the other noise. The bus driver and boys about my age sat in front. The driver was listening to some high life music miming horribly in a hoarse voice. One of the female passengers had a kid about three or four years old who suffered us to listen to his cry whenever he asked anything and was refused.

As the angry passenger tried to force his words into my thoughts, I tried to close my ears with my imaginary earplugs occasionally nodding my head to his words that I was not listening to. Along the road we passed several police and military checkpoints. Usually all the driver did to enjoy clearance at some of these checkpoints was to give the police money but at some of these checkpoints we had to undergo their search which they used to punish passengers for the drivers refusal to cooperate with them.

"Look driver you know how this checkpoints work. Why not just give them the money instead of delaying us?" the angry passenger eventually told the driver after we had to spend close to an hour at a checkpoint.

"Oga, why don't you just give them the money if you are in a hurry?" the driver replied, seeing an opportunity to say something to the angry passenger.

"I didn't pay you money for nothing. You are supposed to use part of that money to bribe them".

"I will not give them any money".

"If you allow them to delay us again I will show you who I am".

It had to take the effort of two elderly men in the bus to bring their voice down. By then the raised angry voices had woken the sleeping passenger who was drenched in his own sweat.

"This heat is too much", he announced, trying to open the already opened window by his side.

"My brother, this heat is nothing. You should go to Maiduguri, that is where real heat lives. I love that town but since all this killing started I had to send my family back to my hometown for their safety. I travel back every two weeks to see them", the angry passenger said to him and I became free as he turned his attention to his newfound friend.

"I understand your predicament. I'm from Enugu I was born in Minna but despite everything that is happening I can't leave".

"There is really not much difference between Muslims and Christians, we are all good at heart. It is all this religions and God that is the problem. If we can do away with religion we may just learn to life with each other".

"Jesus!" the woman with the crying baby shouted at the angry passenger. "Are you mad? Please don't let your blasphemous mouth bring down the wrath of God on us!"

By this time all the other passengers were interested in the angry passenger.

"I am not mad and you can't tell me what I can or cannot say. I believe religion has not erased my right to freedom of speech, and I know my friend here agrees with me. What's that your name again?" he turned to ask me.

Sometimes in life the truth always finds a way to reveal itself and that was exactly what happened at that moment — before a lie could find a way out of my mouth the truth rushed pass it.

"Mohammed".

"Are you a Muslim?"

"Yes".

For a while the voices in the bus went silent as they tried to absorb this revelation. All the passengers retreated into themselves and with the silence I found myself drifting into sleep.

It was the sudden brake of the bus that woke me up. It was a group of people, men and boys armed with Dane guns, machette, cutlasses and knives, that greeted my eyes. Before I could realise what was happening some of them had circled the bus, ordering us to get down. When the first passenger got down one the boys demanded her name.

"Nkechi. I'm Igbo, I'm one of you", she said in a voice full of fear.

As I sat in my corner the reality of what was happening became clearer and I started thinking of a way out, an escape route but I could see none. The windows had iron bars running across making them impossible to use. With fear and my heart beating hard I sat, resigning myself to fate. Eventually it got to my turn. As I was getting off the bus, I tried to catch the eyes of my co-passengers to silently plead with them to help me out but none of them could look me in the eye except for the angry passenger, who raised a wicked finger, pointed at me and in a voice laden with hatred, anger and loathing announced to the crowd:

"This one is a Muslim".

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