A hot afternoon in July.
The old train car was clanking and rattling over the rails. It was comparatively empty – a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks out shopping, a couple off-duty bartenders casually glancing through the sports section of the local newspaper.
I was gazing absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.
Then as the doors opened at one unremarkable station, the calm afternoon was suddenly shattered. A man on the platform bellowed at the top of his lungs, yelling violent, obscene, incomprehensible curses. Just before the doors closed, the still yelling man staggered into our car.
He was big, drunk and dirty. He wore labourers clothing. His ragged shirt was stiff with dried vomit, his hair crusted with filth. His bloodshot eyes were bugged out, beaming scorn and hatred at all who caught his glance.
Screaming obscenities, he swung his big fist wildly at the first person he could reach, a scared young woman holding a baby.
The blow glanced off her shoulder, sending her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that she was not badly hurt and the baby was unharmed.
As the frightened young woman ducked for cover, protecting her baby, the elderly couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. They were terrified.
The big labourer aimed a wobbling kick at the retreating back of the old lady. “This ol’ mama!” he bellowed. “I go kick your nyash!” He missed, as the old woman barely scuttled to safety. This so enraged the wretched drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the centre of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding, likely from an earlier scuffle.
The train lurched ahead, the scattered passengers were frozen with fear.
I stood up.
I am young, and in pretty good shape. I stand six feet, weigh 225 and speak fluent Hausa. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of Taekwondo training every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was my martial arts skill was untested in actual combat. As students of Taekwondo, we were not allowed to fight.
My teacher, a fourth degree expert, taught us each morning that the art was devoted to peace. “Taekwondo,” he said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate other people, you are already defeated. In Taekwondo, we study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”
I had listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting. I had even gone so far as to cross the street a few times to avoid the kolanut-chewing touts who lounged around the train stations. They’d have been happy to test my martial arts ability.
My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. Yet in my heart of hearts, I was still dying to be a hero. A part of me still wanted a chance – an absolutely legitimate and justified opportunity – to save the innocent by destroying the guilty.
This is it! I thought to myself, as I stood up tall and proud to confront this menace to society. This slob, this cruel animal, is drunk and mean and violent. People are in immediate danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody is going to get hurt. It’s time to take his behind to the cleaners.
Seeing me stand up, the belligerent drunk relished the chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared, “Iyemiri! (Ibo boy!) You go learn am for lesson por Hausa manner fa!” He landed a heavy punch on the metal pole beside him to give weight to his words.
Holding on to the commuter strap overhead, I gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of angry nastiness I could summon. I planned to take this filthy turkey apart, but he had to be the one to move first. And I wanted him mad, because the madder he got, the more certain my victory. I puckered my lips and blew him a sneering, insolent kiss.
It hit him like a slap in the face. “All right!” he hollered. “I go tish you lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.
And then, just as he was about to lunge, a single-syllable shout pierced the air.
The word instantly sliced through the thick intensity of the moment. I was stunned by the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching all over for something important that was lost, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it and loudly shouted to you, “Hey!”
I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both found ourselves staring down at a little old man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his Babariga. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the labourer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.
“Zo nan,” the old man said in an easy Hausa vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly towards the seat next to him.
The big man followed, almost as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and towered threateningly over him.
“Talk to you!” he roared above the clacking wheels. “Why you want make I talk to you?”
The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbows moved so much as an inch, I’d drop him in his socks.
The old man continued to beam at the labourer. There was not a trace of fear or resentment about him. “Me ka ke ta sha?” (What have you been drinking?) he asked lightly, his eyes sparkling with interest.
“I drink am for kunu,” the labourer bellowed back. “Wetin concern you!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said with delight. “Absolutely wonderful! You see, I love kunu too. Every night, me and my wife – she’s 76, you know – we get a little bottle of kunu and take it out into the garden, and we sit on the old wooden bench that my grandfather’s first student made for him. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our Tangerine tree is doing.
“My grandfather planted that tree, you know, and we worry about whether it will recover from those Harmattan storms we had last season. Tangerines do not do well after Harmattan, although I must say that ours has done rather better than I expected, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. Still, it’s most gratifying to watch when we take our kunu and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!”
He looked up at the labourer, eyes twinkling, happy to share his delightful information.
As the bewildered drunk struggled to follow the intricacies of the old man’s conversation, his face began to soften. His shaky fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I like am for Tangerine too…” His wavering voice trailed off.
“Yes,” said the old man, smiling and leaning slightly forward, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”
“No,” replied the labourer to this so strangely-friendly man in a softer, sullen voice. “My wife… she die last year.”
The suddenly changed drunk hung his head in heavy sorrow. Then, gently swaying with the motion of the train, this big, burly man, who was so threatening just a moment ago, began to sob. “I no get am for wife. I no get am for house again. I lose my work. I no get am for money. I no get anywhere to go. I’m so ashamed of myselp.” Big tears rolled down his cheeks. A spasm of pure despair rippled through his body.
Above the baggage rack, a brightly coloured ad trumpeted the virtues of suburban luxury living.
Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful pride, with my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier and more ashamed than he was.
Just then, the train arrived at my stop. The platform was packed with bustling humanity. The busy crowd surged into the car as soon the doors opened. Maneuvering my way toward the door, I heard the old man speak sympathetically.
“My, my,” he said with heartfelt care, yet undiminished delight. “Saanu. That is a very difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”
For a brief moment, I thought the old man looked like Jesus. I turned my head for one last look before leaving the now-crowded train. The labourer was sprawled like a sack on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was looking down at him with smiling compassion, his hand stroking the filthy, matted head of this confused soul.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench dazed with all that had just happened. What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been deftly accomplished with a few kind words.
Jesus had shown me something better than fighting. Jesus had taught me the real Taekwondo.
Written by Johannu Afere