On my walk to heaven, a man named Shekau told me I would be invisible, and I believed him perfectly. When you are a boy like me, you can walk out in public in torn shorts and a dirty shirt, oversized or undersized, buttoned up or down. A rolled-up scarf wound about the top of your head will balance a wooden tray of oranges. You must go to great lengths to be malnourished to the right degree. Walk briskly, and in intervals of fifteen seconds, call for passersby to purchase the oranges on your tray. You are no different from the air in the market.
Shekau had chosen my path to heaven. It was through the market, the one we call Sabo. From the market to the market, alas, Shekau had returned me to where I once belonged. Of course, I knew the parts well enough to ghost through like an ordinary boy who had come to buy oranges for resale. The vegetable section of the market had the most women and children. The area selling meat and cattle area was where the men stayed, so Shekau had marked it as a red zone for me. But the entrance to the market was marked green: more women and children than men at any point in the day came through the vestige of the market gate. The policemen never stayed there. They would rather hang out at the motor park a good distance away from the entrance, looking for bribes and making jokes with the criminal drivers they had arrested in times past.
As I walked to heaven, I looked down the motor path that led to my village one last time. Maybe some months ago—perhaps a year or several years in the past, I cannot tell anymore—I remember that I would have steadied the bowl of oranges on my head and gone through the market and down that motor path on foot, back to the dust of dusk, back to the grey bricks and mud walls, pans and cooking woods, of my village. I was good at being invisible. I walked toward the gate at the familiar pace of the market people. I did not look too intently at faces as I called out, “Buy your fresh oranges!” I thought I might have seen someone I knew from the village. I stopped before the market gate where Shekau said the portal of heaven would open to me. I looked up and saw heat waves swirling up and down as the portal opened. My hands got sweaty, but I managed to stay steady. I needed to unbutton my shirt to let go. My heart was racing but with my knife in hand, I could be a butcher, an orange seller, or a trader of petty things. Invisible, I could be many things and anything. That’s why the market was perfect for me to walk into heaven. No one paid attention to boys like me.
It happened very fast. I had practiced detonating a little egg in the twinkle of an eye. To set a vest off in a single swipe of the knife. Shekau created simulations, timed me and watched me a thousand times until he was satisfied. I sliced my shirt from the top to bottom in one perfect swipe of my pocketknife. Before anyone could raise sufficient alarm, I pulled the string with the same knife and we, my little egg, my vest and I, went off in the market.
Our camp is in the middle of canopies of iroko and baobab trees. It is on a mass of land with small thickets here and there, patches of red earth, three uncompleted concrete bungalows, a few shacks and shrubs. Precisely put, the middle of nowhere.
On the first day of my training, I was made to enter Shekau’s studio by one of the older boys in our camp—when I hesitated, he pushed me in.
“Be gentle now,” Shekau ordered him in a calm and deep tone. He kept his eyes on the canvas he was painting. My bare feet felt the cold on the dusty German floor as I looked around in awe. The older boy walked out, leaving me alone with Shekau in the studio.
“Take a seat, son,” he said to me with such gentle power that I immediately obeyed. He never took his eyes off the painting he was working on. He was painting a moustache on a man’s face. I thought the moustache looked ugly because I had never seen a moustache that did not run from one end of the upper lip to the other. The painting was fascinating nonetheless. His saggy eye bags fell heavily at the top of his cheeks. His jawbone was pronounced, and his chin was broad. The man’s gaze was stern. I wondered what kind of man this was that Shekau painted, this man without a proper moustache.
“Do you like him?” Shekau asked me.
“What is that?” I replied, referring to the moustache. Immediately, Shekau turned the full glare of his large eyes on me.
“Son, you do not ask questions here. You only do what you are told.”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded.
“Good,” he said with that soothing baritone, and gave a powerful laugh. He told me to look around the studio and to tell him what I saw. I walked between the rows of cheaply made easels and I saw three paintings of our president. One of the paintings depicted only three quarters of the president’s face slashed by a diagonal line while the rest of what could have been his face was painted in a block of thick red against an off-white background. Shekau had several unfinished paintings hanging around the room.
There was a painting of a man whose head was wrapped in a white turban. The tail of the turban extended down behind his ear onto his chest. He was wearing an army camouflage jacket over his white kaftan. He was smiling and he had his arms open. I thought the man had a warmth to him. I experimented with transposing my mother’s face onto his smile and open arms, but the look did not hold in my memory either because my mother was dead, or it was just unlike her to smile.
But it was the painting beside that one that caused everything else in the room to fade away. The bust was a dark-skinned man with a brown hide across his broad chest. His braids fell over his shoulders. His head carried an open crown that did not cover his braids atop. Slim face and solid jawlines. Brown-black eyes with the reflection of red flames burning brightly in them. At once, he was perfectly sad and perfectly powerful. He was a beautiful man. I thought he looked like a version of me. I thought I could become him.
“I see that one. I see him,” I said to Shekau as I pointed in Sango’s direction. He stopped painting and smiled. Then eventually turned to look at me.
“Well done, my child. When I saw you, I knew you would make a fine warrior in the coming war,” he said to me. I knew my father barely came home from wherever he went to, but I was certain that Shekau was not my father. His head was not shaped like the head of a sledgehammer as my father’s was. I did not know the details of my father’s eyes or the specifics of his body. I only remember seeing the back of him as my mother pointed at his head. However, I was oddly fine with Shekau calling me “child” in that voice.
“Which war?” I asked. He looked at me with a brief grin before smiling again.
“You will fight for God and he will give you a place in heaven. Now remember, no man can answer your questions. You will ask God all your questions when you get to heaven.” He looked at me and pointed to the ceiling. Shekau had paintings on the ceiling too. He said they were the paintings of heaven.
I wondered what war Shekau was talking about. I had a vague mental picture of what war was, but I began to piece all the deaths I had witnessed in one image and I guessed it was close to war. I thought of how I would not like to be part of the war I saw. I remembered my mother’s head splattered on the main road just after a car hit her in a road accident while she hawked oranges in town. I remembered some of the other boys I grew up with whose dead bodies I had seen on the street after a failed village heist. There had been guns on their bodies too. I was synthesizing war, piece by piece.
Shekau also said I would have a place in heaven when I fight for God. I began to think of what heaven looked like. In my mind, I saw a thin sheet of blankness. Then, I looked up at the ceiling, in the direction of heaven. I saw a painting of a boy in a black mask, black tank-top, and army pants. The boy had a gun strapped to his chest and held a knife in his right hand. I thought he looked like one of the soldiers that used to come to my village from time to time when the rebels in our territory started to fight. But this soldier was odd. He was a boy like me. Twelve angels surrounded him. A great fire burned around the angels encircling him wingtip to wingtip.
“Until you go through the fire, you will not reach heaven.” Shekau touched my shoulder. “In the coming war, we will start the great fire,” he continued and laughed. Without taking my eyes off the boy with the knife and the angels, I nodded.
“You must want some food now?” He asked as his soft palm slid slowly over the side of my face. His voice became gentle, concerned. I nodded again. He reached for a bowl hidden behind his table and handed it to me. It was fufu and okra soup with an assortment of meat. It would be the first and last time I would have a meal as good as that again.
“Eat now. Eat, my child,” he said to me.
A loud voice blasted through the speakers all around the camp. Shekau said each time I heard that voice over the speaker, I should come out for prayer on the open field at the center of our camp. The open patch was between the studio and the cells where the other boys like me stayed. Shekau also said that the older boy who brought me in would teach me how to pray to God when I was done eating. He said it was by prayer that God gave us the strength to fight for him.
Shekau said that artists made the best murderers. He recruited boys that had a gift for painting, sculpting, or drawing. Shekau’s recruiters were well trained and they knew how to spot us.
I still have not seen the man that recruited me since the day he brought me into the camp. After a while, my best guess was that he was on the lookout for another boy. On the day he found me, I was in the shade of a mango tree cutting through orange peels and sitting on the drawing I made of my mother somewhere between Sabo and my village. I guess he saw an artist in me.
I hawked akara in the mornings and sold oranges in the afternoons and evenings. I had a special way of peeling my oranges before I sold them. The oranges always came out in diagonal strips of light yellow and white. With a razor-thin knife, I sliced through the thinnest layer of orange skin. The peels fell to the floor in long squiggly strips that snaked through the air. The secret was steady hands on the knife and for what it was, I was really a sculptor of oranges. As I peeled, I had the feeling that someone was staring at me, a man from the other side of the street. I burrowed too deep till the juice spilled out. I reached for the napkin in my bowl and decided to suck the orange because no one was going to buy that one from me. The man wore a white kaftan and had on dusty sandals. His eyes met mine, but I quickly turned away. The man walked up to me and I hoped he just wanted to buy oranges.
“Hello,” the man said. I nodded, but felt orange strands between my teeth and I could not feel comfortable replying that way.
“You know what? I would like to buy these oranges.” I sprang to my feet.
“How many of them?”
“All. All of them.” I could not believe my ears. That meant I would not have to walk in the scorching sun hawking that day. It meant I could go home early to play ball with the boys. I quickly grabbed the plastic bag and started to put in all the oranges.
“Wait. Wait…Wait a minute,” he said. I stopped. “How old are you?” I really did not care if it was his business or not so long as he was going to buy the oranges.
“I am twelve years old,” I replied. “Do you want me to add this one?” I pointed to another orange that looked bad.
“Why are you not in school?” The man asked as though he had not heard my previous question. I told him my mother had died and that I did not know where my father was. The man nodded his head and had a sad look on him until he touched my hand and smiled.
“Would you like to go to school?” He looked at me as though my response was all that mattered. I loved school. I loved seeing the other kids in their dirty uniforms when they came to buy oranges from me after school hours. I had always wished that someday, I would wear a uniform and have the same spring in my gait when I walked back from school.
“Yes” I replied. “But there’s no one to take me.”
“I will put you in school if you come with me,” the man said as he brought out a few bills and handed them to me. “Would you come with me?”
I really shouldn’t have trusted him, but I did because I wanted to go to school. Though the man at times in our conversation shared that familiar smile that often marked the aid workers that tried too hard to blend in, the mild distraction from the click of a shutter did not accompany him. I picked up the paper I sat on as I prepared to follow him. I had drawn my mother’s face on it. The man asked to see it.
“Did you draw this?” He asked me and I nodded. He seemed impressed and said, “You are really going to like this school.”
I liked to draw when I got home in the evenings. I always begged for paper from one of the kids that came to buy oranges from me after school. After I drew on them, I often put them in my back pockets so I could sit on them when I wasn’t hawking.
Since the first time I saw a painting, I knew I wanted to be an artist. In those days, not many people had a television in my village. Kids like me would stealthily hug the walls of neighbors houses with our backs to see theirs. Even though they knew we would come to their windows to peep at the television, we still walked stealthily. One day, I saw a man painting on the television and it looked good. Ever since then, I started drawing faces, but I never had enough money to buy the colors to paint them.
“Imagination feeds the killer and the artist alike but only reading can feed imagination,” Shekau once said. I think that was why Shekau gave me so many books. On the second day of training, the same older boy came into my cell. I had been sleeping with my head on another boy’s feet before he came in. When he opened the door, a bright ray of light landed on my face. The light woke me up while all the other boys like me shrunk away and crawled up towards the wall. The older boy pointed at me, his dark figure splitting the light as he signaled me to come out of the cell. I obeyed and he slapped the back of my head with the grip of his gun and ordered me to walk. I knew we were going to the studio.
Shekau was done with the painting. The man he painted wore a light brown uniform with an odd-looking red badge just above his elbow. It was a swastika. Shekau was sitting at the office table. He slouched with his thigh over the arm of his chair, a book in hand.
“How are you, son?” Shekau asked. I could not reply. My feet were sore and my brain was not sharp as I tried to shake off my drowsiness. Shekau stood up and dipped his hand into a cookie jar before coming to me. He placed the cookie in my hand and said, “When I ask you how you are, you must say: God has kept us alive for the coming war and infidels that stand in the way of God must be crushed. God be praised. The war is coming. I am fine and well.” I looked at him and I nodded. Shekau asked me to say it after him a couple of times. I mastered it on the fifth time and Shekau smiled at me and nodded.
“Can you read?” He asked me as he walked back to the office table.
I had finished my primary education before my mother died, though she did not have the money to pay for my secondary school. She told me I would have to hawk like she did to eat any meal in the house. My father was never home. I loved to read so when I left school and started hawking, I started to steal old dailies from the newspaper vendor. I also used it to package the akara I sold to those who patronized me. My mother used to fry them early in the morning when she was alive, but I had started to make them myself after she died. I read at night when I was done hawking and on Sundays when I stayed at home.
“Yes, I can read.”
“Good boy! Now you will take this book to your cell and read it before tomorrow,” he said. I nodded without knowing whether to be excited or not. Shekau handed me a book and asked me to read the title aloud.
“The World as We Know It,” I said.
“Very well said.” Shekau nodded and smiled at me. “You read that book and make me happy.”
The book was thick, and I had never read something that long before. Shekau ordered me to put the book aside and not forget to take it back to my cell when I left his studio. He held me by the shoulder like my friends would have and walked me to the work he was painting on the first day of training.
“Son, do you know who this is?”
“No” I replied, shrugging.
“You will read all about der Fuhrer in that book.” Shekau said. He told me that before training each day, I would have to read a new book. He showed me the plethora of books on his table: The Thunder Speaks of Three Parrot Eggs, The Fall of America, The Man bin Laden, The Hidden Teachings of The Old Prophet and several other books. The books were mostly religious or political. Shekau said I would take a small test and if I passed, I could share a meal with him. If I did not pass the tests, he said God would be mad at me for not being ready for the war.
“Books are the food of the mind. In the coming war, our minds must be as sharp as those of the people we read about,” he said and pointed to the paintings of the men hanging around the room. I noticed two distinguishably huge books on his table. He said he taught all the boys together from those books on Fridays and Sundays. Shekau told me that both of those books were not complete and that if I pleased God enough my name would be found in the books.
By the time we were done, it was evening prayer.
After the third day, he made me paint every day. He said painting was a crucial part of the training. He handed me a set of brushes to paint with, telling me that the day I lost them would be the day I would get cut off. I was only allowed to paint the men I read about in the books that Shekau gave me to read. There were few artists in the camp, and we had our sessions with Shekau separately. There were different categories of boys in our camp. First, there were the artists, like me. Shekau said the job of an artist was to lead the war. Then, there were the geeks, who always spoke about being in a computer room in some part of the camp I had never seen. The geeks never came out for physical drills. They only came out for prayers and they came to the cell to sleep very late at night. We also had the older boys. The older boys were bigger than most of us. Those ones barely talked. They trained all day on the open field and one could easily hear their chants as they went through their daily drills. They read aloud to us before Shekau began to teach us on Friday or Sunday. The older boys also “welcomed” the new boys to the camp—and they beat them like goats. They always caught the boys that tried to escape the camp. The older boys were the closest to Shekau. There were also extras in the camp. I never really understood what the extras did, but they were mostly girls and babies. They cooked, I guess. They brought food into our cells. They cleaned. They never lifted their eyes from the ground. The older boys always went into their cells at night. I heard girls sobbing and animals grunting; piercing the silence of our cells at night. Every boy waited for the day Shekau would let him into the extra’s cell. But first one had to become one of the older boys. After a while, I learned to look forward to going into their cell.
One day during prayers, we all knelt down and muttered the prayer words that Shekau taught us. I had a bad habit of looking around when we prayed. As I turned my head slightly, I saw a girl carrying a baby in the corner of my sight. I thought that was weird because the extras were not allowed to come to prayer. They stayed in their cells, where they had larger windows and more food. The girl was talking frantically to the older boy that guarded the extras’ cell. The girl jerked the baby frequently and pointed into the forest—the part of the camp that was not fenced. I stopped praying completely and watched them as I briefly forgot the repercussion of not praying on the field. There was something about the conversation the girl had with the older boy; the gestures said too much to me. The older boy seemed to have been convinced by whatever the girl had told him. I felt he shouldn’t have been convinced. I marked his face; he had a pair of vertical marks on each cheek. As soon as the girl walked with her baby into the forest, Shekau had sent one of the older boys to get me.
I learned the habit of counting wounds and scars in camp. I kept a small tally that helped me keep track in my corner of the cell until it breached into another boy’s counting space. I wish I had more space in my corner because I missed out on counting a lot of scars and wounds I received on the night Shekau called me out during prayers. The rumor in our cell was that the boy with the highest number would become the cell leader and would join the older boys.
One night, I had barely started to sleep. The other boys in my cell were scampering when the voice in the speakers around the camp called loudly. The call was not the familiar prayer call, but it was urgent. We all knew that we were to come out, but I don’t think anyone knew why. I could hear the elastic vines lashing the bare skin of the boys in the other cells. I guess the older boys were trying to hurry them. I was too tired to be hasty, so when one of the older boys burst into my cell, he lashed me. The drowsiness vanished from my eyes. I ran out. I ran out into the flood of halogen lighting on the open field we prayed on. The night bugs clustered around the halogen bulbs and they irritated me when they flew too close to me. There were two tall boys standing in front of me so I could not easily see the spectacle that had gotten everyone’s attention. Shekau’s voice blared through his megaphone.
“One of you has failed God. Today is your reckoning.”
I hated when Shekau gave speeches on the prayer grounds. I preferred seeing him in the studio. As always, when Shekau spoke only the bugs made any sound. Even then, you had to hope that the bugs would hush lest you were thought to be buzzing like a bug. My legs became cold and my heart beat faster. I peeped through the space between the tall boys to get a glimpse of what was going on. I quickly recognized the boy with the two vertical marks on each cheek. He was on his knees begging Shekau loudly while two older boys held him down by his shoulders. He was in trouble, and I knew it had something to do with the girl he let go to the forest.
“Please, master, the girl had a baby,” the boy with the vertical face marks cried.
“Stop!” Shekau ordered him to keep quiet as he marched in front of all the boys in the coolest gait ever. He, a very tall man, at times like this really towered everyone else. He stopped in my line of sight, a huge figure in the space between the two tall boys in front of me. His once-white kaftan smelled musty.
“No escape! No one should escape on your watch. One of our own has put our good work here at risk. The infidels will be on our ass anytime now.” Shekau said. He shook his head and walked back to where the boy with the vertical marks was kneeling.
“This one will perish like the infidels.” Shekau pointed directly at the boy’s marked face. Shekau pulled out a knife from his kaftan pocket. He raised his knife and turned to face the boy. I could hear the pulse of the boys in front of me pumping cold blood. Suddenly Shekau turned again to face us all and he smiled. We knew better than to expect mercy.
“It is the will of God that one of you must do this.”
The boy with the face mark had peed in his pants. Only a few of us noticed. The two older boys who pinned the other boy down volunteered to do the work of God but Shekau declined. He looked out across the sea of our heads, his eyes searching. He walked slowly into our midst. I swear silence had never been so loud before. As he walked by, he touched some boys on their head, and he patted the back of others. Finally, he stopped in front of the boys I was concealed behind. I wished I could still my heart then. I folded my hands too tightly and I froze my body. Shekau slid his hands between the two boys and made way for himself. His eyes burrowed into mine and my eyes said too much. Shekau took my hand and pulled me along to where the boy with the face mark was.
“I was impressed by your painting today. You brought Sango to life. I can see that your hands are getting steadier on the brush. The imagination to depict him with lightning actually hitting his body, and yet have him look so unperturbed, is just remarkable.” Shekau then whispered so only I could hear, “This is your reward for a job well done.”
My mind was blank.
“Remember, just as your hands must be steady on the brush, you must steady your hands on the knife. You hear?”
“Yes, master,” I replied.
“This will prove you can fight in the war. But if you fail, you shall be treated as an infidel.” Shekau told me just as he handed the knife to me.
The boy with the face mark looked at me and I understood pity for the last time. His eyes were eloquent and the crystal-clear drop of tears that fell from them warmed me inside. I really could not look at him for long. I turned aside for a moment before Shekau rubbed my back lightly and told me I could do it. He told me it was just another painting.
So, I lifted the knife. I held my breath and steadied the brush in my head. I imagined it had a red paint and I was painting the fire in Sango’s eyes—eyes perfectly sad and perfectly powerful. The painting was red, and the blood of that boy felt warm under my bare feet. An artist fully immersed in his work. Shekau smiled at me and patted my head, which was down near his waistline before taking the knife from me. I finished my best painting yet, but I nevertheless did not sleep well that night. I had my usual nightmare but this time, I saw a headless boy holding his face-marked head and walking aimlessly in the forest.
After a week, Shekau had taught me how to live with myself. He had me look straight into the eyes of the face-marked head, bodiless, and paint it every day for the next seven days. He taught me how to be invisible to even such inconsequential things as my body.
Now, let me tell you about paintings. Certain paintings, good paintings, perhaps every painting, arises in opposition: brush strokes in contrapuntal positions. Take for example The Portrait of Obama by Kehinde Wiley. A copy hung on the wall of Shekau’s studio like a pendant that almost wore its owner. It had neither been beautiful to me nor had I found it particularly striking, but it was Shekau’s most accomplished work, a copy of the original but good nonetheless. The painting’s green climbers are lush and interspersed by orange, purple, yellow and white flowers, complete with a life of their own, at once pulling the gaze away from the classic ties off, casually suited President Obama style. Think about it: an accomplished black man surrounded by greenery, the two together without the unity in picking, planting, or ploughing, Obama’s arms perfectly crossed, his thighs akimbo. Two separate lives, full in themselves, one not needing the other, yet on canvas they are pollinating. Or have you seen the lips of the Mona Lisa? They are arching ever outward in a bit of a smile but toward unyielding cheeks. Each part of her face tells a separate story, yet she appears whole to the gaze.
Have you seen The Boy with a Face Mark? Take a look at the counterpoint of my own painting. Right there, kneeling before me was a boy who had a marked face with his head just raised slightly above my waistline. Waiting for a last hurrah. A mercy. A God. A god like me. Something to break in his favor. Looking up to me, and I down at him. He, without fight. Still like a canvas. As I lifted my brush to paint, another image arose in my memory. A contrapuntal note. It was a short memory of my mother arriving at our village gates and instructing me to take up a knife, peel an orange or two, and take them to the beggar who sat all the time by the entrance to the village. She instructed no further. The man never said thank you, and my mother had nothing clever to say when I finished running the errand. I knew somehow that those who waited on God and men alike deserved a mercy.
If you pay attention to every swipe of my brush in that picture, you will find kindness and judgment singing their own separate notes. Thick red. Assured swipes and timid slashes. Counterpoints in The Boy with A Face Mark.
I looked at us, my egg, bomb vest and I, all sitting on the mat. Shekau told me that we were ready to start the great fire. He reminded me that God was waiting for us in heaven and that I was to wait for his signal before we went to heaven.
As I waited, my mind wandered to things like the ugly moustache I saw on Hitler’s face. I thought to myself that like Hitler’s moustache, each narcissist needed a feature by which they distinguished themselves. Shekau spotted an overflowing beard but Osama had owned it well enough to make even him a wannabe. I wondered what I should own. I couldn’t decide.
I stumbled on the first question I was going to ask God when I got to heaven. I arrived at it on the day Shekau decided to give me my own knife. He sat at his table spinning a globe, a map of the world. He did not notice that I had entered the room, or perhaps he was so consumed by the steady act of turning the world in his large veiny hands because I should never have seen what happened next. A tear drop rolled down from Shekau’s eye. I blinked twice in the disbelief of what I had just seen, and a fleeting thought came to me. I remembered asking myself what could have made Shekau cry. Was the great fire worth it?
As we sat waiting on Shekau’s go-signal, it was a thought that seemed well worth mulling over again, but I had been down that route before in the minutes that passed while Shekau spun the globe in his studio that day. I had also seen the end of such ruminations, as Shekau snapped back into the reality where I stood before him. It was as though he became a different person than the one I had just seen with tears in his eyes. Shekau looked up and pointed at me with a knife. “God has no gunmen,” he said. “Slitting a throat to kill requires the precision with which a painter applies a brush on a white canvas. If the painter’s brush falters in the making of a line, the painting will never come out good.” Then he handed me the knife.
Photo courtesy of Peter Roome; view more of his work on Flickr.