In those days, there were very few special days in a calendar year. Each one of them marked for different, peculiar reasons. Some gave cause for celebrations and some were in honour of the dead. Some were marked for the hope of good things to come and some in remembrance of a tragedy. June 12 was a day I knew for a long time to be a special day. For reasons peculiar to me alone. For me, it was a day that gave birth to strange happenings. Some were fascinating and some, as I came to realise after the trip to Kogi, were tragic.
That day, about nine or ten years ago, a convoy of three white buses drove into my school compound and parked in front of the classroom complex. Already waiting outside in the wide courtyard, was a small, milling group of about 50 students eager to begin the excursion to Kogi State. I cannot recall who suggested the idea to the school authorities but the main objective of the expedition was to visit an ancient academy of yarn spinners.
I also cannot recall the name of the village where the excursion took place, but I remember that after a few hours into the journey, the mud-houses roofed with zinc and fenced around by wild bushes and trees of the Edo countryside gave way to an expansive rainforest sliced through the middle by a narrow highway on which we journeyed on.
We set out in the morning under a clear sky inhabited with patches of floating, white clouds and by midday, as we crossed the border into Kogi, the forests thinned into low lands, the sky turned cloudy and the air became filled with red dust such that we had to shut the windows. They were soon reopened after our convoy turned into a narrow dirt road flanked on both sides by cashew trees with ripe, red and yellow fruits dangling from the low branches. Eager excited arms shot out of the windows and plucked the cashew fruits until Aunty Daisy, our busty teacher cum caretaker, turned angrily and commanded the windows to be shut.
In any case, we arrived at the place of the excursion by just as our bellies began to groan and wail and make the sounds unhappy stomachs make when in need of sustenance.
The name escapes me but it was a dull, sleepy town with paved, winding roads that were kept neat. And from what I can remember, the town was flanked on three sides by rocky hills and on its south side by grassy plains through which we entered.
I was captivated by what I saw in the wide courtyard we all alighted in. Sitting at the far end of the courtyard, between two white buildings, was a tall, ancient tree. Its long branches and broad leaves shadowed a long section of the compound together with the open corridors of the storeyed, white building to the right. These corridors had mosaic drawings that matched those on the opposite wall of the compound and My young mind thought they were really vivid. The other white building was a bungalow that joined the courtyard’s low wall and there, our host, an amiable grey-haired man, directed us to settle in after giving us a warm welcome.
“excuse me sir–” I started to ask from the midst of my restive schoolmates.
“please call me Mister Jombo,” the elderly man said, smiling. Anything he wanted I would give, I needed the reassurance.
“Mister Jombo sir, please can we still see the museum academy today?” I tried to keep my voice humble and polite so I couldn’t understand the looks Aunty Daisy and the other two caretakers, Aunties Nneka and Janet, sent in my direction. But Mister Jombo, dressed in immaculate white trousers and shirt, smiled even wider.
“What’s your name boy?” He asked
“Richard,” the gentle voice registered.
“Yes, Richard. We can go to the academy today but that depends on how quick you can all settle in and after that, have lunch.” He spread his open palms, “or what do you say?”
Nothing more was needed to be said. Boys and girls all around me rushed into the building, ignoring the caution of our teachers to “be orderly”. As for me I had the reassurance I needed and lagged behind to arrange my thoughts. Having gotten to our destination and with the excursion to begin soon, there was no longer any scary incident to be wary of. What we had witnessed on the Edo-Kogi highway was scary and strange enough for a June 12 day, I thought; even though it had been a brief incident. The rest of the day after would as usual, move on normally.
Feeling relieved, I joined my schoolmates in the bungalow and immediately set to look for my best friend, Colette. We had planned to go through the whole excursion together. I spotted her crouching in a secluded corner of the rowdy parlour and unloading our leather satchels that would hopefully hold memorable souvenirs. This docile Kogi town had a lot to offer. What could possibly go wrong.
I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that things started to go wrong when barely twenty minutes into unpacking, Mr Jombo re-entered the bungalow rather quite hastily. I followed the gaze on Colette’s attentive face to the open doorway where our three teachers stood conversing in hushed tones with the host.
Mr Jombo spoke, turning away from the women who stood behind him.
“you must unpack and settle your things quickly as we will be late for lunch otherwise. However, after lunch, there wouldn’t be any need to begin a journey across town to the academy..”
gasps of bewilderment went through the room.Our host was unruffled.
“The time now is twenty minutes to three, that leaves little time today for a complete exploration of the museum academy before night falls. Instead…”
My heart had already sunk to my stomach in disappointment at this point. Aunty Daisy had done something, I surmised, because she and the other teachers now turned and went outside. Having made sure their “instructions” had been delivered. But most of us were dismayed at the news and showed it. Colette tsk-ed repeatedly beside me. Maybe we would all climb the big tree in front of the house and swing from its branches for the rest of the day. I rued. What else was there to do?
“…we could all go upstairs after eating in the other building.”
said Mr Jombo, answering the question in my head. I peered around, to see that it was my classmate, Humphrey who had given voice to my question -bold, adventure-loving Humphrey. Mr Jombo meanwhile gestured for us to remain calm.
“you all know this is a place of art, abi don’t you?
Yes, upstairs in the other building is a small museum and art exhibition centre. When we’re done there, we shall climb the big rocks on the hill behind the big tree outside that hid the local Kogi people from their enemies in the old days. I’m sure most of you didn’t notice when you came in-” at this, the gaffer’s twinkling eyes winked.
“I noticed, who wouldn’t?” Colette scoffed beside me.
In truth I hadn’t noticed the hill. Maybe I was the only one. Albeit, after lunch in the white, one-storied building Mr Jombo rushed us through the art centre upstairs and led us back down, then up the ancient stairs behind the tree to the rocks.
“the real deal is up there,” he declared.
A low, wooden fence of white paint was erected behind the tree with what I thought was a wall but in actuality was a rock,looming over it. It had deceived me into thinking there was nothing behind the fence. But Mr Jombo led us through a modest, white gate in the fence and up a steep path that gradually revealed the clustered, rusted zinc rooftops of the sprawling town beneath.
We were shown various caverns borne into the rocks where the local people hid years ago during times of war as well as the numerous scribblings and drawings on them. Also, our host took us through a winding, rocky path and onto a large rock that ended with a cliff. In the centre of the rocks a hollow depression lay and on the ground before it was a colourful painting of a brown skinned woman with four hands and naked from the waist up. We all gathered together and gazed curiously at the painting, chatting excitedly. “who is she?” Some were asking.
“Artemis,” announced Humphrey and we broke into loud laughter. Humphrey liked mischief and was a towering, fair-skinned individual in his creased, checkered yellow shirt and green shorts.
“Artemis!” He bayed again.
“Artemis! Artemis! Artemeyssss!” we all chanted playfully then moved further up to the spot where a crevice resided in the rock. We gathered around the edge and silently peered down to see a pool of fetid green water at the bottom.
Mr Jombo’s gentle voice wafted in the cool breeze across the entire rock summit. “my good students, in this place, legend has it that on one occasion the enemies of the Kogi people here conquered the hills and cleared out all the caverns and tunnels down to three remaining warriors. But rather than give in to their enemy, the outnumbered warriors fought their way to this spot where they jumped down into the pool in this cranny to their deaths. The legend goes further to say that the warriors didn’t die but instead turned into crocodiles and have resided in there ever since.”
“for how long have they been there?” I asked.
“they’ve been there for many years, Richard. Over three hundred years.” He replied solemnly.
This had us all intrigued and we moped at the water many feet below, looking for the creatures. Mr Jombo continued,
“if you look closely you’ll see in the water, the three warriors ..” and at that moment two crocodile heads reared above the pool. I wondered how such fierce, fully grown and deadly reptiles could cohabit in such a small pond and not kill one another.
“You’ll have to stop doing that Mister Humphrey, its dangerous play.” cautioned Mr Jombo. We were still gathered on top of the rock. At first some students had laughed off Humphrey’s antics which attracted Mr Jombo’s caution (a couple of us even going as far as joining in the rough play) until he tried it on one girl, Boma. Boma was a petite, fair skinned girl with a notorious fetish for nature and wildlife. So as she stood on the edge of the crevice, tossing pieces of dried fish -from only God knows where she had procured them- into the green water, Humphrey snuck up unseen and grabbed her shoulders suddenly. The girl panicked, shrieking and launching feral blows at her assailant but he had already slipped away like an eel, cackling in pleasure.
“look at the careless play these ones are playing,” Colette said from behind my shoulder. I sighed and turned to address her.
“lets be going abeg,”
I hesitated a bit. Not wanting to go back down to civilization even though dusk had begun to creep in. We could still explore some of the caves and rocks, I thought.
“lets go over there,” I suggested, pointing to the rocks east of us nestled amongst tall trees and shrubs.
“didn’t we go there already?” Colette asked, raising an eyebrow as she was wont to do when unsure of something.
“yes, with mr Jombo.. We didn’t go into any of the caves but remember he said there were bigger drawings inside there” I began moving in that direction. “Lets go a’exploring Colette.” I added playfully and pumped a fist in the air.
“mumu. You’re right sha. Let’s go and see the drawings,”
As we went on our way Mr Jombo called out to us to be careful while he himself descended down the hill and back to the compound below.
Some long minutes later we were seated by the entrance of a cave that was roughly cut into a large rock. A clearing in front of us allowed a view of the orange-hued sky above the sleepy, dusty town. Dusk had set in, leaving the caves behind gloomy and rendering useless our little exploration. So we sat talking, our voices soaked in by the greenery all around.
“today has been somehow,” Colette said dourly.
“yeah,” I agreed.
“starting from that thing that happened on the road as we were coming..” this drew a glance from me.
“what even happened?” I inquired.
“do I know… I think it was armed robbers sha,”
“hmm” I said, turning my head to look in the direction we had come. Loud, excited voices breached the thick foliage surrounding Colette and I.
“what could be getting them so excited over there, Coli?”
“lets go back and have a look.”
“go where? No abeg. Lets stay small and enjoy the peace here-” the panicked rustling of dried branches and leaves behind us interrupted Colette. We listened closely. The rustling lasted a brief moment and then subsided. I looked at my friend who returned my gaze with widened eyes.
“its most likely a small animal like you. A monkey maybe,” I said with a grin.
“you’re the monkey.” Colette retorted and I broke into laughter for a long minute.
“its getting late sha,” I said and it was Colette’s turn to laugh.
“Richard I always tell you that you’re too soft to be a boy,”
“being cautious is not soft, animal”
The loud, excited voices of before now sounded closer and I thought they were all saying the same thing. A name. They were calling a name. It hadn’t escaped Colette’s ears and she rose to her feet.
“they’re calling Boma’s name. Listen.” She was right. I stood and joined her on the narrow path that led outwards.
“lets go and see what’s happening.” We walked out cautiously and soon encountered a number of our colleagues, about twentyof them, stomping through the bushes and calling “Boma! Boma!”
“Richard! Colette! Have both of you seen Boma?” this was from Emmanuel, a student who was one class above me.
“No,” I blurted. “what happened?”
“Boma,” the boy repeated. “she ran this way. You guys didn’t see her?”
“no we didn’t,” Colette answered. “but we heard some movement behind us when we were just back there-” she added, pointing to indicate. Already students were swarming the area behind us, calling for Boma. As I remember, two of our caretakers, Aunty Daisy and Nneka showed up half-stumbling, half-running with panicked looks on their faces and went after the students searching for Boma. No one answered our questions as to what happened so Colette and I made our way back to the rock summit where we met over a dozen students loitering around with dejected and woeful expressions on their faces.
Our third teacher, Aunty Janet, was sprawled in a sitting position by that big hole in the rock, wailing unceasingly. “Humphrey oooo! Humphrey! Ei! God! Hei!..”
Now filled to the brim with curiosity, Colette and I trudged to the crevice and peered over the edge. I will never forget what I saw. Inside the pool were the crocodiles, ferociously tearing at a mangled body -Humphrey’s body or what was left of it. The green water had mixed with the red blood to form a sickly brown and bubbles of air pocked the surface, releasing bursts of blood, fat and whatever resided in the water.
Everyone stood helplessly around. Mr Jombo had shown us the only access into the pool was a narrow slit in-between the rocks. Nothing could be done. I fell to my knees beside the hole and violently emptied the contents of my stomach. It was Colette and the despondent Aunty Janet who pounced on me and pulled me away from that precipice. Things went numb and blurry after that.
Boma was found the next day, at the foot of a high rock. She had fallen off the cliff to her death and her broken body had spent a night there amongst stunted rocks and trees feeding carnivorous birds and wild pigs. It was ugly. It was gory. It was too much for any of us to bear.
What had happened? The story that got out was; Boma who had been pranked on by Humphrey sought him out to exact revenge. It happened really quick. She picked her moment when he had gone to stand by the crevice in the rock, snuck up behind him and grabbed his shoulders but Humphrey had turned at the last moment to receive a shove to the chest that sent him over the edge and into the water. Seeing what she had done, people said Boma yelled and screamed before running into the bushes. Whether she fell off the rock’s edge by accident or deliberately, nobody knows till today.
As for me, only Colette knew the silent trauma which I underwent during those horrendous days and for a long time after that incident I would always be filled with horror whenever June 12th approached.
By Tony : @RENEGAD_E