Growing up, Enid Blyton was one of my favourite authors. But it wasn’t because of the Famous Five series or the Secret Seven series or the Mallory Towers series or any of the other “series” books. It was because of a novel that few seem to have heard of: Six Bad Boys. I loved that book. Oh, how I loved that book. The novel, as I learned later, came out of Blyton’s brief experience as an adult with Britain’s family court and the foster care system. It is a sad, unsentimental, bleak story about six kids who turn to each other because there is no one else to turn to.
Reading Raheem Omeiza’s Good Boys, it struck me that it had the same core foundation as Blyton’s novel: a group of kids who are made stronger by their friendships. They need that strength, because they live in a world of unstable adults. Unlike Blyton’s book however, this story is full of joy. It is a hard joy for the story’s world is a hard world, perhaps even dystopian world, but to paraphrase the fantasy writer Samit Basu, “for us in the third world, dystopia is just Tuesday.” The kids play in the sun, they laugh, they are always up to no good, at least until the next meal is due. These kids will survive, I think. And that’s good enough.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
We are sweating from every pore on our bodies and our feet are smarting, tingling as if they are being pricked by pins. We have been running on hot, rough concrete, kicking and chasing after a small plastic ball. We don’t listen to our mothers yelling at us to stop, that it is too hot. They say we’ll catch our deaths from heatstroke. Who catches their death from having fun anyway? Adults say all manner of crazy things. When we do stop, fatigue claps us like thunder after lightning, like a sudden realization. We wash ourselves under the tap outside, splashing water on one another and laughing like a pack of mad children as my aunt always says. Before long, we are asleep on the cool cement verandah, huddled together in a tangle of limbs, snores, and meaningless sleep chatter.
We all live in the same place. You see, my aunt owns all the houses and tenements. I live with her and my cousins (who are her grandchildren) in her hulking colonial-styled-story building with large rooms and smooth cement floors. Her house has no plumbing, so we have to go toilet outside in the outhouse.
There is Big Jamiu who lives with his father—a pickup truck driver—half-brother, and stepmother, in the Zinc house. The Zinc house is a shack built completely with old, corrugated aluminium roofing sheets that have turned brown with age and rust. It is an oven during the day, so my aunt doesn’t collect rent from the people living there. Big Jamiu hates his stepmother, and we help him carry the weight of that hatred. She serves him half a tail of fish instead of a full tail like his mother used to give him. His stepmother doesn’t cook beans to mush, which is just wrong. Everyone knows you’re supposed to cook beans until it becomes mushy. Jamiu’s mother got sent away by his father because he caught her sleeping with another man, whatever that is. I overheard my aunt telling her friend that Big Jamiu’s father sleeps around with small girls too, and that that is how he met his current wife. I wonder why they sleep around and not in their own houses. Big Jamiu says he sees through the old and transparent excuse of a curtain that separates their part of the Zinc house into a living room and bedroom. He says his father’s black and bony buttocks are always oscillating back and forth in the air, sticking it to his stepmother.
Big Jamiu’s half-brother is big and round like a ball with two fists and two short legs. His small hands are decked in traditional wooden bead bracelets that are supposed to prevent him from having convulsions. He has only four teeth, two each on his upper and lower gums and he’s always smiling at people. Big Jamiu hates him so we hate him too even though all he does is smile at us and drool on his chest. We take turns to pinch him and watch him cry when his mother leaves him with us. But I convince the boys to stop pinching Big Jamiu’s brother because all he does is crawl and smile and drool. The poor kid still smiles at us when he sees us.
Because there’s a Big Jamiu, there has to be a Small Jamiu. Small Jamiu is my cousin and he isn’t really small. Big Jamiu is Big Jamiu because he’s older. Small Jamiu ate too much candy when he was a baby and all his teeth got rotten. My aunt took him to the hospital and had everything removed. His teeth grew back small and dainty and they look like baby teeth. So we call him Baby Teeth sometimes. He’s chubby and cries when he’s hungry and the food takes too long to be done. Small Jamiu knows how to drum and he can create a beat out of anything—a wooden stool, cement floor, glass bottles, tree bark—anything. My aunt says his spirit has rhythm. We always have him around to entertain us on dreary rainy days when we are stuck inside and cannot go out to play, or when we cannot watch cartoons on the TV because there’s a power cut.
There’s Abdul, who lives with his uncle and his wife in the other room in the Zinc house. Abdul has huge eyeballs that seem like they want to jump out of his face as if they have somewhere else to be. It is the first thing you notice about him. He doesn’t like it but we call him Frog Eyes when we want to be mean to him. He speaks with a lisp, rounding off his ‘s’s’ and ‘x’s’ into something softer, something different. Abdul is scared of his uncle. To be honest, we all are. He is a sad man who never smiles. The frown lines on his forehead look like they were chiseled there the day he was born. He is quick to anger and even quicker with a cane. We try our best to steer clear of him as much as we can.
There is Muizz, who we’ve only known for a year because his parents moved into one of the three cement room and parlour apartments recently. He is quick with his feet and by far the best football player among us. Muizz knows all the football players by name and jersey numbers. Even when we play beer top football with the metal caps of beer, Muizz still wallops us. I’m no good at real football but I play beer top football well, just not as well as Muizz. You see, beer top football involves angles and ricochets and force and speed, brainy things. Beer caps are our players, a button is our ball, a smooth cement floor is our field, and folded paper is our goal post. His parents don’t want him playing with us but he sneaks out to play with us anyway, even though it means catching a beating from his mother. Muizz’s mother is a cross woman that finds fault with everything. It’s as if life has sucked out all the happiness inside her. All she does is purse her lips and complain and complain and complain. My aunt said they used to be rich and owned their own house. But something happened and they lost their house so now they have to live in a rented room-and-parlour apartment.
Finally, there’s Sani, the oldest member and leader of our little group. He is twelve. He has large, floppy ears that flap around in the wind. His eyes are sharp and eager, always brewing with mischief. Sani is the brain behind every bit of monkey business we embark on. Once, he threw a banger into a large plastic basin full of water. Muizz’s mother fetched it from the public well. The banger split the plastic basin neatly into two equal halves along its seam, flooding the verandah. She rained curses on “whoever did this” as she swept away the water. She’d have flogged us with a koboko if she’d seen us.
Another occupant of the cement apartment is Mama Ephraim, a nurse who lives with her two small children. Her first son, Ephraim, is three years old. And there’s Steven who is only three months old. Her husband left her for another woman when she was pregnant with Steven a year ago. She’s almost always in a hurry, especially on weekdays. She’d be dragging a sleepy Ephraim dressed in his nursery school uniform in one hand while clutching a big bag with baby things in her other hand. Steven would be strapped onto her back, secured with a shawl she had tied in several knots. Mama Ephraim is a nice woman when she is not rushing off to work in the morning and smoothing down her white nurse uniform. She treated Big Jamiu the one time he had a whitlow on his left thumb. The whitlow made his thumb very big, almost as big as a small lemon. It was filled with smelly reddish-brown pus that Mama Ephraim extracted with cotton balls soaked in methylated spirit. She didn’t squeeze her nose even though the pus smelled like spoiled beans. She gave him injections that made him stop thrashing around in pain. The injection made him sleep. Me and the boys went to Mangoro and picked many mangoes and gave it to her. She smiled at us and called us good boys.
The last occupant of the cement apartment is Emeka, a fair man that lives alone. His parlour has a plush red rug and fancy home theatre system lined up against the wall. He has a paunch and thick hairy legs. He is tall but not too tall, just tall enough to be referred to as tall. He lets us keep the change when we run errands for him. Usually, we help him buy condoms from the pharmacy down the street when he has a girl over, which is often. Other times, we help him grind his beans into moi-moi paste. We even fetch water for him when he has diarrhoea and he is running to the outhouse but we make him promise us money first. We like Emeka. He’s not like the other adults. He doesn’t shout at us and say nonsense about us catching our deaths from heatstroke. He also doesn’t care if we are wearing our slippers or not, unlike Mama Muizz who is always yelling at us to wear our slippers.
We are huddled together, eating hot rice and spicy stew from our stainless-steel plates. We are blowing on it foo foo with our mouths to cool it down before we eat it. My aunt is watching Super Story, her favourite TV show on the big Sharp TV. The TV has a long back that makes it look as if it is pregnant. Sani says it is where the people on TV stay but that doesn’t make any sense. It is impossible for all those people to fit into the back of the TV, and there are too many people anyway. She looks away from the TV to yell at us because we have grains of rice strewn around us.
“Are your mouths leaking?” She asks. “Look at rice everywhere.”
We look away and continue eating, careful not to spill any more rice. Sugar ants come out of nowhere and drag away some rice grains. I wonder how many ants a grain of rice can feed. Sani probably knows the answer. He told us an animal called a cheetah is the fastest animal in the world. Later we saw it on TV and he gave us his “I told you so” face. We know about all kinds of animals now: hyenas, which are ugly; pandas, which are black and white and cute; and whales, which are massive and can eat a lot of fish. Lions are everyone’s favourite animal because they are big and powerful and can roar. They are also the kings of the jungle. And unlike cheetahs, lions are popular. Everyone knows them, even children that don’t go to school. Everyone knows that “L is for Lion.” After we finish eating, we get our tires and head out to play.
We are riding our motorcycle tires in nothing but underwear. We are riding it through Police Headquarters, honking pim pim with our mouths, cornering the tires expertly around sharp corners with our steering sticks. We are chasing after the tires on the freeway, running and running until we are out of breath. We gather under the shade of a big neem tree to catch our breaths and wipe sweat off our brows. We put our steering sticks inside our tires and park them against the trunk of the tree. We sit on the ground and talk about the usual things we talk about.
‘I am going to buy a big house when I am big. I’ll live inside the house with my mother,’ Big Jamiu says.
‘But where will you get money to buy a big house?’ I ask.
‘I will be a banker. I followed my father to the bank that one time and I saw a lot of money. I will take all the money in the bank.’
‘Me, I am going to be a drummer like my grandfather. I will be famous,’ Small Jamiu says with dreamy eyes.
‘I’ll be a footballer,’ Muizz says with a shrug as if it is inevitable.
‘You are all fools,’ Sani says. ‘I am going to become a politician. That’s how you get a lot of money. I’ll be a senator,’ he declares.
Abdul doesn’t say anything. He’s tracing patterns on the dirt with his right index finger. His tongue is peeking out of his mouth, and this means he’s in his own little world inside his head and he is not listening to our conversation.
I am not sure of what I want to be when I’m big, but I tell them I am going to become a doctor, and that I’ll treat them for free when they are ill. They all look at me and groan.
‘Why do you have to be so boring, Farouk?’ Sani asks as he rolls his eyes.
‘What?’ I shout back, frowning.
‘You can be anything you want to be. Doctors are boring and too serious,’ Small Jamiu says.
‘That’s what I want to be. Leave me alone!’
We argue like this, back and forth until we see cattle egrets soaring overhead, their white wings spread out wide against the clear blue sky. We stop arguing and run after them, singing:
Leke leke come gimme white white fingers
I go give you ten ten fingers
After the birds disappear from view, we go back to the tree to get our tires and head home. On our way, Sani declares that we have to go to Mangoro to pluck mangoes tomorrow morning since we are still on holiday and there’s no school. We agree.
Mangoro is a large stretch of land filled with dozens and dozens of mango trees. No one knows who planted the trees, not even my aunt. There are so many mango trees in Mangoro that even though everyone is welcome to the mangoes during mango season, a lot of mangoes still fall and decay. Sani climbs a tree and plucks ripe but firm mangoes, the ones that are mostly green but starting to turn yellow. We gather the mangoes as they hit the ground. We fill our nylon bags with more mangoes than we can eat, enough mangoes to make us sick.
We are heading home with our loot on the freeway, spitting mango peels on the road when we run into a mob of angry men chasing a man. The mob is shouting “ole, ole, thief thief” and more people join the mob. The man they’re chasing is wearing only white shorts which have long streaks of brown mud stains on it. His upper body is completely naked. He trips and falls, and the mob falls on him. They are pummeling him with their fists, kicking him with their legs, hitting him with wooden planks. The man is covering his head, screaming, “please, please, abeg have mercy,” at intervals. There’s something familiar about his voice but terror doesn’t allow us to place it. The mob doesn’t hear him. The mob is too occupied with beating him to hear. They are beating him as if he is the cause of all their problems, as if the man is not somebody’s son, as if he is not a human being. No one is even asking about what he stole, they’re just beating and beating…. When they ease off, the man is bleeding from almost every part of his body. His head is swollen, and his lips are twice their original size. He is completely naked now because the mob has ripped off his shorts. He tries to cover his thing, but his hands slide off every time as if he has lost control of them. Sani gasps and says, “that is Emeka.” We gasp too and cover our mouths with our mango-stained hands. But the mob isn’t done with Emeka. They come back with a car tire and a keg of petrol. I am confused and scared.
“Sani, what are they doing?” I ask.
“Shut up Farouk!” he says.
That’s when I realize that he doesn’t know what is about to happen too. All of us are scared, and we huddle together where we are, a few meters away from the madness and keep watching. Two men from the mob help him up. He’s still bleeding profusely and both his eyes are swollen shut. He spits out some teeth with a mouthful of blood. He doesn’t look like a person anymore. It is as if the mob has beaten out his soul, his essence. Another man throws the car tire over him. The tire hangs on his shoulder. The weight crushes him to his knee. A man upends a keg of petrol over the naked man. Emeka is screaming and gagging on petrol, trying to say something, probably to beg for his life again, to ask for mercy.
Someone I don’t recognize throws a lighter at the naked man and he catches fire. The mob moves back to avoid the heat. Emeka is screaming and he topples over. The tire is belching out thick, dark smoke. The air smells like burning hair and flesh. I am screaming and feeling warm piss leaking down my leg. Small Jamiu is vomiting violently like his stomach is trying to eject everything he has eaten all week. Muizz, Big Jamiu, and Abdul are crying. Only Sani doesn’t look away. He’s not crying but tears rim the edges of his eyes.
He looks on, shakes his head and says, “These men are animals but he is free now. Let’s go home.”
Abdoulaye Diarrassouba-Aboudia’s Untitled,2017.
Aboudia often paints street life, especially that of kids, in his native city, Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire. His large, energetic paintings with their bold colour fields and sharp-toothed humans felt like the perfect accompaniment for this story.
Raheem Omeiza is Ebira and writes from Lagos, Nigeria. His writing explores boyhood, grief, sexuality and the liminal spaces where they intersect. He was a finalist of the 2022 Afritondo Short Story Prize, the 2022 Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize, and the 2022 Kikwetu Flash Fiction Contest. His works are published or forthcoming in Afritondo, Litro Magazine, Isele Magazine, Kikwetu Journal and elsewhere.
In his own words: Raheem Omeiza loves cats, pineapples and beans cooked to mush. He spends half his day arguing with strangers on social media and the other half in his head dreaming up things that will never happen. Also, he wonders where the souls of mosquitoes go when they die.