By Yazeed Dezele`
At peak noon the sun became a ball of molten lava blazing over the cloudless yellow skies of Abuja, capital city of the United African Republic. Skyscrapers glinted pupil-searing bright like towering cuboid mirrors. Hot silver rays of sunlight poured into the still clear waters of Jabi Lake at the city centre and long serpents of steam began to rise into the atmosphere. Spanning this lake was the Balewa Bridge, a marvel of steel cables and graphene tarmac six lanes wide, which lines of remote sensing auto-navigated SUVs ate up. The chiefs, alhajis and madams in the backseats of these cars dozed like fat pigs, their bloated skins fanned by ultra air-conditioners while at the ever-bustling El-Rufai Bus Stop at Berger Junction double-decker buses belching smokeless Afrosol fumes flocked like drunken whales.
Their working class passengers, all clad in reflective long-sleeved jackets and sunglasses, rested their heads on leather cushions, occasionally jerking out of their sleepy trances to see whether they had reached their destinations. Before alighting they would take deep breaths, grit their teeth and put on their government-approved cooler-helmets before dashing out into the streets. They left black footprints of soot on the melting concrete sidewalks as they ran past. There were no taxis. Those green-striped driverless vehicles which operated from the City-Trans headquarters at Nyerere Crescent had been run out of business at the beginning of the heat wave three days ago.
Because the air was perfectly still, as though trapped in a glass vacuum, the only natural-grown tree in the whole city, a gmelina everyone was proud of, was dying. Its gnarled bark peeled off in dry flakes and its branches were covered in a mass of crisp biscuit-leaf hair. As the day wore on, the smell of burning natural-grown grass began to fill the air. The patch of matted green around the tree had suddenly sparked into flames.
In Daye’s living room the air conditioner struggled with the heat-strangled air. He was sitting on the edge of his desk, a shaky index finger hovering above the touch-screen of the flat monitor in front of him. He was glaring at the headline on the Ministry of Environment’s website that screamed: Deadline for surrendering all Organic Waste Elements is 4 pm today. His heart throbbed against his rib cage, cold sweat poured off his body. The digital clock blinked 2:15 pm.
“Organic Waste Element?” he muttered to himself. His finger was hovering at the edge of the screen where there was a highlighted box tagged CONCUR.
“She’s my mother, you bloody bastards!” he roared suddenly at the screen.
Leaning into the E-glide chair he breathed in jerky snorts. The outburst seemed to lighten his head a bit.
He heard footsteps lumbering across the living room towards him.
“Na wetin be dat, my pikin?” came the feeble voice of an elderly woman from behind him.
He quickly switched away from the euthanasia page.
“Nothing Mama,” he said, narrowing his brow at the screen with affected seriousness. Afrinewsia, the government propaganda news page, swarmed into focus. It was showing the pyramidal glass headquarters of the Intercontinental Space Agency. An inset picture showed some space-suit clad astronauts standing on parade, their captain holding the Republic’s flag. They were listening to a farewell address from the Kenyan-born President Ole Sunkuli. Daye wondered if their lunar expedition would be affected by the heat wave.
“You no wear helmet, eh? Na only God go help us for dis kind heat o,” she said, re-adjusting the cooler-helmet she wore.
“Amen o,” Daye’s replied, his lips moving of their own accord.
“When dem say dis wicked heat go stop, sef?” Ma Braimoh asked and shook her head.
Without waiting for a reply she shuffled over to her favorite E-glide armchair and settled her massive frame in front of the ceiling-to-floor TV. She adjusted her spectacles and punched the buttons on the armrest, one at a time. The TV switched on.
His mother out of the way, Daye returned to the Ministry of Environment’s euthanasia page. He knew what would happen once he touched the CONCUR box; within 30 seconds, a Waste Chopper helicopter carrying four green-uniformed men would be dispatched from the ministry headquarters to come and whisk his mother off.
“Na wa o,” lamented Ma Braimoh from her chair. “How dem go arrest somebody go Sahara just because him cut one tree?” On the TV screen the Green Police were holding a press conference to parade the five men convicted of the tree-felling. A Libyan-born officer was briefing journalists.
“This continent will not tolerate planet-killers,” the officer was saying. “Every criminal arrested will go work, for life, on the labour camps of the Green Sahara Project. This should serve as a lesson to others.”
Daye didn’t turn to look; the sight of the Green Police always cast a dark cloud of fear over him. The news took Daye back to his boyhood a quarter of a century ago when his mother would take him to the Mandela Parklands in the foothills of Mount Kilmanjaro. The Parklands had been established to protect the last remnants of some of Africa’s finest species and they would venture far into the vast blanket of natural grass fields to learn their ancient woodland secrets. The reserve had contained natural trees of every color shape and size. Baobab, acacia, flame-of-the forest, gmelina, mango, cashew, shea butter, you name it and it was there. They would stand and listen to the whispers of the rustling leaves while inhaling the sweet aroma of bark and loam.
“Trees dey talk o,” she would say. “Dem dey talk about bad-bad things wey go happen for future.” Then she would point at the skies where Daye would gape at the black-tailed hawks gliding through the evening skies. “See, those birds dey bring good-good message wey go come quench the bad things for ground.”
As he grew older Daye had dismissed her stories as primitive nonsense. But that was years before the natural forests of Africa began to go extinct.
Today the forests were artificially bred in greenhouses and out of bounds to the public – fenced by electric wire and 24-hour CCTV surveillance. Daye wished he could show his own ten-year-old daughter, Cheena, what a live forest was. He doubted if she even knew what an iroko or shea butter tree looked like. Once, in the years after the Tree Crime Act was passed, he had climbed the only natural tree at the centre of his secondary school. He had been expelled as a result.
As if sensing his thoughts, Cheena spoke up.
“Don’t you even have one cookie of sense in your skull, Big Momma?” she asked. She was curled up on the sofa by her grandmother, her tiny eyes peering from under the visor of her cooler-helmet. “Tree-felling is an unnecessary waste of our natural resources.”
Ma Braimoh cleared her throat, swallowed and fell silent.
Daye hadn’t noticed when the little girl had come in. The way she crept around the house these days, like a tiger cub sniffing for flesh, sent a shiver down his spine.
3pm. The dilemma gnawed at his stomach with steel claws.
A soft hand landed on his shoulder and Daye jerked his head to see his partner, Nnena, standing behind him. Her head was turbaned in a towel filled with ice cubes; she hated wearing the cooler-helmet because they made her scalp itch. She looked like she was carrying a mountain on her head. The scent of boiled sweat and concentrated perfume seemed to be fighting each other to escape her armpits.
“How far?” she asked.
“Honey,” Daye sighed and leaned against the back rest. “I don’t think I can go through with this.”
“Oh puh-leeease!” she snarled. “Why can’t you ever use that archaic thing you call a head. We are in the twenty-second century now!”
“I know,” said Daye. “But she’s my mother.”
“Fuck you and your mother!” Nnena barked, smacking the back of his head.
“Wetin be dat, my pikin?” Ma Braimoh asked, raising her voice from the other side of the living room.
“Nothing, Mama!” Daye said, trying to sound calm. Nnena hissed.
“Listen to me, homo-sapiens man,” she whispered into his ear. “We need that Geriatric Compensation to upgrade. Maybe you enjoy snorkelling in this filthy Pacific Ocean of sweat, but I don’t. Cheena needs a Robot Dancer toy, like every other child her age, and I’m tired of eating synthetic rice and beans every day! The stock we have now is the last we have to eat before-”
“Alright, alright! Just let me think.”
“You will have to choose between me and your primitive hag of a mother.” She said and left him.
“My pikin, food don ready?” Ma Braimoh asked as Nnena swaggered past her. Nnena simply tut-tutted and walked into the bedroom. Cheena giggled, her eyes following every word and action.
Daye shook his head, rubbing at the spot on the back of his head where Nnena had smacked him. A mere tap, but it had felt like the club of a sledgehammer. Nnena was right, he thought to himself. His mother didn’t have long to live, after all. Why deny his family’s comfort for her sake? He thought about his daughter. He should be her hero, not her zero. Still, Daye wished his mother were a “primitive hag” as Nnena put it, then it would have been easier.
3:30 pm. Thirty minutes to go. Daye’s heart accelerated its thumping on the church roof of his chest. Eternal banishment to the Green Sahara Project labour camps stared him in the face if he did not give up his mother. He saw himself and thousands other convicted planet killers hunched over the glowing red sand dunes of the great desert planting trees until they collapsed like dehydrated fish in the molten furnace heat.
The thermometer dial blinked the room temperature: 30 degrees. The air conditioner was beginning to resurrect from the dead as the heat wave petered off for the day. It would return tomorrow afternoon a hotter molten ball.
“My pikin, wetin be U-A-V?” Ma Braimoh asked suddenly. Daye craned his neck to look at the TV. In the news the Ghanaian-born vice president, Efua Akwase, was beaming from ear to ear and shaking the hands of three Nigerian-born engineers who had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. They had invented the Blue Mary, an unmanned aerial vehicle built to transport goods from internet auction sites directly to the homes of customers. Daye felt a glow of pride, a feeling that was axed in half when he remembered his present dilemma.
There just must be a way out. Daye switched to the Mambilla search engine and typed in: How to save your elderly parent from state-euthanasia. As he surfed through the list of solution sites that turned up on the screen, an Afrinewsia page caught his eye. He found his hand giving in to temptation, and before long he was perusing through its contents.
Afrinewsia: the dawn of a new Africa! it read, and went on to describe the achievements of the government. The space program: Soon Africans will be vacationing to space. Afrosol: the first greenhouse-friendly motor spirit to go into public use. He focused on one section that read:
Made in Africa auto-navigated cars now ply the streets. The poorest Africans now live in radiation-proof homes. With the double-digit rate of technological advancement, analysts have forecasted that our Republic’s economy will overtake that of Oceania to become the world’s new superpower in a decade. We Africans should therefore sacrifice to save Mother Africa and the planet. The elderly, the terminally ill and prisoners are usurping our scarce natural agricultural resources. They must be given up for neutralization. Surrender your Organic Waste Element and do your part for the Republic . . .
He loved the Republic, he really did. But his mother? How many natural resources had she consumed to qualify her as a threat to the planet’s existence?
3:45pm. Daye didn’t feel the itchiness pinching his skin as his sweat evaporated. His heart beat had gradually returned to normal. He had found his solution. It was on the site of a faceless blogger who claimed to be a former engineer for U-54, Africa’s scientific think-tank based in the provincial state of Zimbabwe. The site featured testimonies of customers from all over the continent for whom the engineer had built oxygenated underground cellars to hide their elderly parents – for just 100 million U-R pounds!
It would plunge him in the red, but there was a solution – that’s what mattered. Daye felt the invisible wet towel that had wrung tight in the middle of his stomach begin to relax.
“Cheena, please get me a glass of water,” Daye said over his shoulder, rubbing his palms as spasms of relief surged through his fingers.
“Fuck you, Dad!”
3:55pm. Daye glanced at the digital clock and sneered. Run, run, run, Mr. Deadline! Catch me in your dreams. He was so engrossed on the screen that he did not hear the sound of padded footsteps creeping up behind him. A hand tapped his shoulder and he craned his neck to see who it was.
Cheena was brandishing a silver badge. Her photo was embedded in the badge and carved underneath were the words: Green Police Junior Under-Agent Cheena Braimoh.
Daye’s breath froze out of him, accompanied by hot trickle of urine which dripped down from between his legs.
“Primitive planet killer,” she muttered, her eyes glinting under the visor of her cooler-helmet like molten red slits.
Daye broke into laughter. The kind of laughter you’d expect from a monkey thrown into a wrestling ring with a tiger. He tapped the CONCUR box on the screen without even thinking.
4:00 pm. The spinning roar of the Waste Chopper could be heard above them on the helipad of their roof. Seconds later, four men in green uniforms stormed into the house. They flashed their silver badges. No questions were asked. No statement was given. They hurled her out of the armchair like a bag of garri.
Cheena kept hopping from one leg to another chanting: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Her mother stood by her, puffing her cheeks and patting her daughter’s helmet-clad head.
“Eleleleleeee! Wetin I do?” Ma Braimoh cried. “Daye help me beg dem, naa!”
Daye remained statue-still in his chair perusing through the latest updates on Afrinewsia as though nothing was happening behind him. Her wailings floated to him as though through a long underground tunnel.
4:05 pm. The sound of the chopper had faded away into the distance. Silence fell on the house for a moment.
Then the breaking news icon blinked, and Daye clicked on the latest Afrinewsia update. A cloudy video popped up. It showed an astronaut in a spacesuit standing on a dusty silver landscape beside a lunar roving vehicle and saluting the U.A.R flag. The headlines screamed: Kalahari-1 mission successful! Nigerian-born Captain Nzeogwu lands on the moon!
The news hit Daye as though his brain had been plugged into an electric main. He shot up from his seat and ran round the house. He banged his balled fists on the wall, kissed furniture, and danced in circles.
“Long live Africa! Long live the planet!” he chanted. Daye lifted his daughter and threw her into the air as she laughed. “You are a pride to Africa! My little Planet-Heroine!”
Nnena rushed out of the bedroom holding her cell phone.
“I’ve just received the alert!” she squealed. “Big Momma was the 1 millionth waste element collected and the ministry is awarding us a 1 billion U-R pound bonus in addition to our Geriatric Compensation. We are rich! We are rich!” she yelled as she jumped in celebration.
Wild fire seemed to engulf Daye’s head. Laughing like a possessed hyena, he picked up his mother’s E-glide chair and slammed it into the TV screen. He took his computer monitor and smashed it against the wall, making Nnena and Cheena duck down to avoid the shower of glass.
Still laughing, he ripped off his clothes, and charged out into the streets, buck naked.