Home Page African-Writing Online
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsProfiles of South African Women WritersFictionPoetryTributesArtReviews

  Alex Smith
  Amanze Akpuda
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Amitabh Mitra
  Ando Yeva
  Andrew Martin
  Aryan Kaganof

  Ben Williams
  Bongani Madondo
  Chielozona Eze
  Chris Mann
  Chukwu Eke
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Colleen Higgs
  Colleen C. Cousins
  Don Mattera
  Elizabeth Pienaar
  Elleke Boehmer
  Emilia Ilieva
  Fred Khumalo
  Janice Golding
  Lauri Kubuitsile
  Lebogang Mashile
  Manu Herbstein
  Mark Espin
  Molara Wood
  Napo Masheane
  Nduka Otiono
  Nnorom Azuonye
  Ola Awonubi
  Petina Gappah
  Sam Duerden
  Sky Omoniyi
  Toni Kan
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Valerie Tagwira
  Vamba Sherif
  Wumi Raji
  Zukiswa Wanner

   Ntone Edjabe
   Rudolf Okonkwo
   Tolu Ogunlesi
   Yomi Ola
   Molara Wood

August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Chuma Nwokolo


Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.

Nwokolo, author and advocate, is writer of Diaries of a Dead African and publisher of .

Bar Room Blues is short fiction from the series, Tales by Conversation

 Bar Room Blues

Endao mi.

What’s that?

You don’t speak any Courese?

What on earth is Courese?

Goodness! I am in the only bar in the last Courese-speaking town in the world - and the barman doesn’t even know the Courese word for good afternoon!
  Give me a bottle of iced water!

Well, good afternoon to you too! You don’t have to pick on me, the local language is dead and you’re not going to change that by harrassing me with phrases like ‘indomie noodles’ or whatever it was you said...

Endao mi.

Endow to you too! There’s your drink! I’m no indigene. I only bought this three-bedroomed shack masquerading as a bar three months ago. I must have been drugged too! You’re the only person to walk in all day and look what you’re drinking: iced water!

Where’s Old Smokey - the fellow that owned this bar - he is Couri like me. He can speak Courese like no man alive.

Must be his sons that sold me this shack. Me and my partner, really. They told us they needed the money to bury their old man, else they’d never have sold...

Old Smokey? Dead?

...They really conned us, they did! The night they brought us here, it was bustling, like there was no chairs to sit on, that kind of bustling. They plied us with booze and we haggled for hours until we hit on a price. Since then, most people coming here are looking to piss!
   You know what I think?


They got all their friends to come in that night so they could unload the bar at a good price. Those boys were sly I tell you! See these fists, they'll do the talking when our paths cross again. 
    I’ve never seen you here before, where are you really from?

Here, originally. I’m a sailor, though my ship's gone down now. Used to stay away sometimes, nine months at a stretch. Can you guess how old I am?

What’s this? Twenty questions?

No, just guess.

Well I won’t. What do you take me for? I’m not a bartender, you know, I’m the owner of this bar. Guess your age! Next you’ll be asking me to...

Can you believe I am forty-five years old? I can’t believe it myself. Everytime I leave on a voyage, another year disappears. Everytime I return on shore leave, someone else has died. So Old Smokey’s gone? Another Courese speaker gone to the land of silent tongues. Can’t be five hundred of us Couri left on the world. And I’m a forty-five year old sailor without a ship...

There’s no need to cry into your water. They’re accepting forty-five year old stevedores at the river port at Osha.

Maybe Old Smokey’s sons didn’t cheat you, you know. Maybe you cheated yourself, buying a bar. Not everybody can run a bar. Some people are made to be stevedores, labourers...

What are you talking about?

Some people go to church, others go to the bar. It’s comfort we’re all looking for. And a pastor whose tongue is a razor will have an empty church, same as a barman - or the owner of a bar - whose tongue is a whip.


...You want me to go? That’s alright, I’ll just...

...no... I’m not like this... I’m not usually like this... you won’t believe the kind of luck I’ve had lately... I wasn’t always a bar-owner you know... I used to be a small town solicitor...

‘small town solicitor’ - Is that a small solicitor in a town or a solicitor in a small town.

I was a small solicitor in a small town, are you satisfied?

Never knew any type of solicitor who liked to talk with his fists.

I bet you never knew a solicitor who broke into a jailhouse to free his old secondary school friend, either.

You did that? I thought lawyers were supposed to spring their friends from jail by going to court.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but in Breeze’s case,


That’s the nickname my friend got from snoring. His real name was Persi Tinja. In his case, the hundred and forty-five prisoners of the jailhouse had sworn they were going to kill him if he snored again.

Are we talking about the kind of noise people make when they sleep?

Is there any other kind of snore? Look... sorry , I don’t know your name...

Spana. Madu Spana. I’m the last of the Spanas, and one of the last Courese speakers on this world. My mother died three years ago and my younger brother has been missing for twenty-six years...

Me, I'm Syril, and please don’t hijack my story, okay? Look Spana, English is such a useless language. Maybe your Courese has a word to describe the kind of snore that can give a twelve-year-old the nickname Breeze, and keep the sixty boys in our Pankshin Boys School dormitory awake, every single night! We were going crazy with sleep deprivation until the Principal heard him across the football pitch one night. They found him a room under the chemistry lab, where he was the only human being in the entire block at night.

Lucky boy.

Look, lucky is not the word to describe Breeze. So, do you have a word for that king of snoring in Courese?

How can Courese have a word for a sound no Couri has ever heard? Tell your story, Syril.

The jailhouse was in Potiskum. My friend Breeze was travelling from Pankshin to Maiduguri when his bus broke down just ten kilometres outside Potiskum. Picture the scene, sailor: it was night and there was the bus, stranded in bandit country, in the middle of miles and miles of deserted scrubland. It was one of those large fifty-seater coaches and it was carrying Breeze’s entire stock in second-hand clothes in its cargo hold underneath the passenger’s feet.

Was he a small-time trader?

He was actually a big-time trader with big-time bad-luck. Some months earlier a fire in the Jos Main Market consumed his entire stock-in-trade. Only six shops were completely consumed and Breeze’s was one of them. Everything he had went up in flames.

Different strokes for different folks. When the MV Hanka sank back in July, Everything I owned went down with it. My portmanteaus, my heads of stone, my bales of cloth, my...

Slow down, Spana, I’m the one telling the story. This bag on the table. These aren’t all your worldly goods?

Well, there’s also that mongrel at your door. It ate the bones from my lunch and thinks there’s more where they came from. I think I might adopt it. Looks just like our ship dog.

You might just have a more interesting story than me, Mister Madu...

I bet I do, but I’m hooked on Breeze already. Tell your story, Syril.

So Breeze’s bus breaks down just outside Potiskum. He had been seeing a psychiatrist for six months since his marriage broke down. Poor girl, his wife. She tried, but there was no way to cope with a snore that once broke the louvres of our old chemistry lab...

You have a serious story-telling problem, Syril. You can’t keep customers if you continue like this. Listen, you’re at the broken-down bus just outside Potiskum. Stay there, and don’t leave that bus - until Breeze is ready to leave as well, okay? Don’t tell me anything about Breeze’s poor wife, - unless she’s at the bus with him. Don’t tell me anything about his psychiatrist - unless he’s also the bus driver...

Look there’re many ways to tell a tale...

...and this is the best of them all. Back to the bus, small town solicitor. I’ve sailed the world telling stories from a thousand midnights to a thousand dawns and there’s no better way to tell a story than starting from the beginning and ending at the end. Back to the bus, Syril.

If you insist. But if it becomes boring, don't blame me...

... yes, make your excuses in advance...

...so there they were at the bus. The driver - who was not Breeze’s psychiatrist,

thank you,

- had trekked back to Potiskum to fetch a mechanic. He went with the bus’ escort. - You know those retired soldiers that accompany interstate coaches to protect them from highway bandits. They’re armed to the teeth and...

...I know what a bus escort is. Now, back to the bus.

Hmm. So there they were at the bus. it was 8 pm and everyone was slowly falling asleep. Breeze was one of the sleepiest men between Pankshin and Maiduguri, but he did not dare sleep.

His bad snore, yes, I follow.

You don’t really follow. You need to have slept within its torture zone to really follow. It wasn’t an ordinary snore. It was an extraordinary snore. There’s no accurate word for it in this deficient English Language. You know how you can sleep next to a loud generator, so long as the noise is rhythmic and predictable? Well, Breeze in full snore was neither rhythmic nor predictable.... his lungs stuttered like guttural fireworks... it was the kind of snore that once caused his desperate neighbours in Pankshin to break the windows of his flat with stones in the early hours. It was...

The bus, Syril.

Oh. Okay, By the time it was 10pm, only the bus’ conductor was still awake. You know conductors, at times like that, they keep awake to make sure nobody goes around nicking the purses of sleeping commuters...

I know.

So the conductor, was awake. And of course Breeze was awake. He knew very well that if he fell asleep the entire bus would wake up - and of course there wasn’t enough water in that bus to rouse Breeze once he got going - and of course there was no telling what fifty sleep-deprived travellers could do to the comatose body of a snoring Breeze before he woke at dawn....

I see his dilemma.

Meanwhile he was probably the sleepiest person between Lagos and Casablanca....

It’s time to move your plot along, Syril. I get the general point now. What did Breeze do next. Did he go crazy? Did he slash his wrists? What did he do?

You want another iced water?


It’s okay, it's on the house, if this paperbag contains all your worldly goods, I can recognise a less-fortunate brother when I see him.

In that case, I’ll have a beer. And that chunk of goat meat in your display case.

Oh. Well.

So what did Breeze do next? Slash his wrists?

If he slashed his wrists I would still be in my small town practice, won’t I? What he did was go to the conductor and ask to be let out of the bus. The conductor asked if he wanted to piss. Breeze said no, that he preferred to sleep in fresh air.


You heard me.

To sleep outside the bus? At the mercy of bandits?

The conductor couldn’t believe it himself. He told Breeze that if the robbers missed him there were boa constrictors and pythons that could swallow a man whole, but Breeze had reached that stage of sleep deprivation where you could fall asleep while you were walking.

So the Conductor opened the door?

Not just like that. They argued for so long that all the travellers woke up. The travellers joined in begging the suicidal Breeze. Don’t go down, they pleaded, but he was adamant. There are armed robbers around they said - and it was safer in the bus since bandits knew that armed escorts rode with buses, and would have no way of knowing that their own escort had gone with the driver...

Look, just jump forward to when the conductor opened the door, alright.

...you’re making me cut out all the interesting bits. Don’t blame me if the story isn’t exciting.

I won’t! Give me a moment, let me give this bone to my mongrel.

I don’t think it’s such a good idea, sailorman, I don’t want mongrels hanging around my door waiting for scraps.

That’s alright, I will be going with this particular mongrel... so the conductor opened the door, then what?

So the conductor opened the door and Breeze got down. He knew very well that the driver may return, fix the bus and be off to Maiduguri before he woke up, but he was past caring...

That was some serious sleep deprivation, yes.

... he just didn’t care. What he did was carry his two bags containing all his stock-in-trade in the world. So the travellers were watching this mad friend of mine as he walked deep, deep into the brush.

Crazy man.

He knew the power of his snore, so he walked real far before falling upon his bags and passing out.

Was he swallowed by a boa constrictor?

I won’t be here if he was.

Was he robbed by a band of thieves?

I’d still be in my law office now, if he was. No, he was still there in the morning. He woke up fresh, panicking that the bus had left him, but when he stood up, he saw the speck of the bus on the tarmac in the distance.

Lucky man.

Wrong. I’m telling you about the unluckiest man in the world, after me. So he grabs his bags and stumbles across the grassy scrubland, praying to get there before they fixed the engine and drew away.
    He walked into a lynch mob.

Beg your pardon?

It turns out that as soon as he left a band of bandits had arrived in three cars. They didn't seem bothered at the prospect of armed resistance. It was almost as though they knew beforehand that the armed escort had gone. They had stripped each passenger and went through that bus with a fine tooth comb. strapping their loot to the roofs of their cars with kitchen twine. It was a three-hour operation and no one got any sleep.

Besides Breeze.

Exactly. By the time he returned the next morning, the money in his pocket and the bags he was hauling was the only money and trader-stock for miles. His fellow travellers were convinced he had phoned his gang members with their location and circumstances. He would have been lynched on the spot, but for the armed escort...

Lucky man.

How many times will I correct you? He wasn’t lynched on the spot. He was merely beaten within an inch of his life, then taken to Potiskum where he was put on trial for the rest of the miserable life. You know the punishment for armed robbery?

I’m no small town solicitor, no.

The firing squad. My office was just about two hundred kilometres from Potiskum, but it was probably the beating or something. He couldn’t remember my number until his judge was pronouncing sentence on him...

Maybe you’re moving too fast now. Why was the judge pronouncing sentence, didn’t Breeze defend himself? Didn’t he explain about his variety of snore that has no word in the English language?

So I’m moving too fast now for you, eh? Okay, I’ll back-track to the middle and go back to the beginning. You see, in the course of the beating all his money and stock-in-trade was stolen, and of course you can’t pay a barrister with the stuff in your nostrils can you?

Not unless it is a small to....

-so it was left for the court to get him a Legal Aid Counsel. The lawyer they got for him was a sixty-year old High Court Fixture who had been practising law for more than thirty years. He wasn’t much good so his only clients were legal aid victims. But he also had a thirty-year old sense of dignity. When Breeze told him his defence he warned him seriously.


What’s your problem now.

Who was warning who seriously. And why.

The lawyer was warning Breeze. I met the lawyer the day after Breeze was convicted. The lawyer said he felt he had just been insulted. I mean, he had practised law for thirty years and had defended every stripe of criminal whose excuses straddled the universe from sleep-walking to Isiahlike visions from God. He said the snore story was the most ridiculous insult to visit on a lawyer or a judge. Then Breeze offered to sleep in the lawyer’s living room overnight, you know, to give him an aural demonstration...

That ought to do it, and?

...the lawyer threatened to withdraw from the case if the word ‘snore’ word was mentioned again,


and the judge sentenced Breeze to fifteen years with hard labour for Conspiracy to Commit Armed Robbery.

My goodness. So was that lucky or what?

So the Judge pronounced sentence and just like that, Breeze remembers my number. It used to be 481515, incidentally. I was out of the office when he called and got the news late. At the bar that evening, I got talking about Breeze, and two other Pankshin old boys - and one old girl - decided to join me to visit him at the Potiskum Jailhouse the very next day.

How did you end up with an old girl when you attended Pankshin Boys School?

You have a mind like a story sieve, Madu Spana. What happened was, in my final year, our school became co-educational. In my class five I had sixteen girls, most of whom transferred from Federal Government College, Jos. There was Tessy, there was Gene, there was....

Okay, you convinced me, we’ve got to the jailhouse now.

So the next morning, we arrived at the jailhouse. We got there at seven, the four of us, Greta and Marak and Tessy and me, so we had one hour to kick up our heels outside the wooden gate before the visiting hours began at eight am. That was where we ran into the high-court-fixture barrister,

Was he a jailhouse fixture as well?

Let’s just say he was prospecting for new cases. So he told me about the interesting case he had the day before, the dense armed robber who lied like a primary school kid. Turned out to be Breeze he was going on about. Later, after the fight...

What fight? Slow down!

Tessy slapped him when he started making fun of Breeze’s defence so there was a small rumpus, but after all that, Tessy kept on going, fifteen years for snoring! fifteen years for snoring! Until Greta - he runs the Pankshin Supermarket, - until Greta says to her to shut up about fifteen years; that it wasn’t as though Breeze was going to serve one month, after all we should look at the wooden gate and the lousy security at the jailhouse.

Wait, wait, are you talking about a jail-break already?

My surprise exactly. You see, I was a small town solicitor. The only way I knew to bring folk out of the jail house like you said, was through the appeal court. Of course, as a small town solicitor, I hadn’t done that many appeals...

How many appeals had you done?

You mean as at then or as at now? This was way back...

As at whenever. Say as at today.

Well, actually, I haven’t actually done any appeals as such. I am talking in principle, you understand. In principle. But you know how it is when you go to school with lots of boys - and girls - some will be lawyers, some will be doctors, and some will be, you know, like Greta and Tessy and Marak. And you get to meet all of them all the time if you live in a small town...

So it was eight o’clock and the jailhouse opened for visitors.

And we entered. - And this is why it’s good to keep your ears from hearing nonsense. As I entered, I’ll tell you the truth, as I entered, I was just looking around like a thief, you know, noting the things a jailbreaker will note - though I had no intention of jailbreaking, of course. How it was just a rusty padlock securing the inner doors, how the wardens walked around with only batons and some uniforms unbuttoned to the navel, how the only weapon in sight was a Mark 4 rifle that looked like they borrowed it from Jos Museum, how...

Were you planning a jailbreak already?

I’m just telling you what my mind was doing. They put us in a large visiting room and went to fetch Breeze. While we were waiting, Greta hissed and said it was a piece of cake. Tessy said she herself had seen three ways to enter and leave, so I warned them that I was a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and didn’t want anything to do with the sort of things they were talking about... before I finished talking, I could smell urine beside me.


It was our friend Breeze. He was shaking like a fever victim. He wasn’t the old Breeze we used to know... you hear that whining? Your mongrel has finished his bone and wants more. I warned you not to encourage him. I give a hungry customer free meat and he gives it to his dog! My life is just one foolishness after the other...

...so it wasn’t the old Breeze you used to know...

It certainly wasn’t. He was gripping my arm for the twenty minutes of our visit. He didn’t let me go till we were at the entrance of the visitors’ room and the prison warden at the door rapped his knuckles with a baton.

First-Night-in-Jail syndrome. Poor bastard. Bad case of nerves.

Nerves? Breeze was petrified. The urine smell wasn’t from wetting himself you know, he had fallen asleep in his cell the night before, somewhere around 4 am or so . Before you can swallow a sip of beer, he was snoring. O-Jesus-dash-me-money! You know how they pack them together in the Jailhouse? There was no sleep for anybody. They kicked him everyway they could, but of course, nothing could wake Breeze once he falls into that sump of sleep from where he generates those sounds that ‘snore’ is such an apology of a word to describe. They propped him up against the cell bars. Breeze fell to the ground and continued to snore. Then one of them had an idea. - You know how they have no running water in the cells? The jailhouse Einstein got his bucket of piss and poured it over Breeze.


That woke him up.

Oh dear.

But by then it was dawn and sleep was over for the inmates anyway. So the prison-presido - you know how every prison has the inmate autocrat whose word is law, whose glare can kill, who...

I know who a presido is.

The presido, who used to be a vulcaniser, was doing eighteen years for hitting a customer who insulted him by offering too low a fee for a tyre-patch...

Eighteen years? For losing your temper with your customer? Look, sometimes the severity of our criminal justice system beggars...

...he hit the customer on the head with a tyre rim...


So presido told Breeze to say his goodbyes next time he went to sleep, because if the prisoners’ sleep was interrupted, ever, again, Breeze wasn't going to wake up again. Period. Breeze believed him. He was gripping my arm, begging me to bail him out immediately. Picture me with this convicted prisoner...

Oh dear.

So I told Breeze to hang in there, that I was going to file an appeal immediately, that his lawyer had really messed up the cas...

Didn’t Breeze ask you how long an appeal would take?

He did.

And what did you say?

Six to seven months.

And what did Breeze say to that?

All that is history, isn't it?

You have a really serious story-telling problem, Syril. You bore me with sixty different ways to describe Mister Breeze’s snore but you skip the most interesting details - just because you don’t smell so nice in them. The salt and the spice of your story is in details like this, Syril.

...He asked me whether I wanted to be the lawyer to a corpse or the lawyer to a human being. He said a few other words which I have since forgotten... Look, that’s me, I don’t hold a grudge, okay? Forgive and forget, that's my motto. So we left poor Breeze; so we sat there in my car, in the car park of the Potiskum Jailhouse, for a very long time...

Discussing the jailbreak?

They were talking about a jailbreak, me, I was just sitting there. I couldn't leave my car for them, could I? All I said was how nice a person Breeze was. Then after a while, after Marak had separated us....

Separated who? Was there another fight? Look Syril, what kind of story are you telling here?

The kind you asked me to tell: starting from the beginning and hop-skip-and-jumping to the end.

Who was fighting who?

Tessy started it all. She slapped me, said I was talking about Breeze in the past tense, anyway, Marak separated us,

This Tessy and her quick hands... is that what happens when girls attend boys schools?

So Greta said they knew I was a lawyer and all that nonsense, and that it was okay, that Tessy would take my place since they needed three real men. That cowards had their uses too. That all they needed me to do was sleep in a Potiskum hotel overnight, in case something went wrong with the jailbreak and they needed a lawyer the next morning. They didn’t want to end up with the High-Court-Fixture who got Breeze fifteen years for snoring in his sleep.

So did you have to bail them out in the morning?

Actually, I never bailed anyone out again. That very night, about eight o'clock, they were at my hotel room.

I don’t like where this is going.

They said Tessy had some bad period pains. That she was doubled over with cramps in hospital and had dropped out of the jailbreak gang. It was down to me, Greta and Marak and could I drive the getaway car?

How convenient for her. Of course you said no.

Of course. So they decided to cancel. They said they had sent a note to Breeze to expect them but it was just too bad. That was life. If he was snuffed out overnight we would do a ten--minute-silence for him at the next old boys meeting. They weren’t going to walk up to the jailhouse, spring Breeze, and go catch a bus. They seemed to take it in good spirits though, and offered to buy me a beer in the hotel bar downstairs.

Of course you said no.

Look these were my friends, my old boys.

You fool. You big, small-town-solicitor fool.

That was eight o'clock. The three of us went through a crate of stout. I forget exactly how the split went. We left for the operation at ten o'clock.


No, you’re right, it was the most stupid thing I ever did in my life. And that is counting the buying of this endangered bar. When we got to the car park of the Jailhouse, I saw that Tessy was waiting there for us. It was all a plan you see. Their plan was simple actually. Tessy would go in alone posing as Breeze’s wife and offer the night warden five thousand naira for a few minutes alone with her husband – that was the standard bribe, you see - Once Breeze was smuggled out of the higher security lock up cells and into the night warden’s office in the admin wing, Greta and Marak would step up and overpower the warden. All four of them would then sprint out to my car and I would drive off for Pankshin. It was the simplest plan in the world.

What went wrong?

A witness who knew me. As soon as they left me in the car park, the High-Court-Fixture drove up.

Breeze’s lawyer at his trial?

The very same one. He parked his car next to mine, stepped out and looked at me with respect. He asked how I knew about the convoy of military police trucks bringing in the group of political prisoners arrested at the civil liberties demonstration in Kano. He said that although I was butting in on his turf, he wasn’t a greedy man. He was prepared to share the briefs with me, but not down the line...

You stood there talking to him? A truckload of military policemen were on their way to you, your friends were in the process of a jailbreak and you were negotiating new briefs with an incompetent barrister?

Remember that what was left of my brain was at that time, also negotiating with six or seven small bottles of stout...

You small-brained small-town solicitor!

You’re drinking my free beer, sailorman, remember that. At that moment, Greta, Marak, Tessy and Breeze broke out of the Jailhouse and fled towards my car. I told the Potiskum lawyer that I had to go, but he stood there like the Fixture he was, yakking and yakking and yakking until Breeze got there and clipped him one on the nose. He was screaming for the police in a voice like a parade sergeant’s – you know how it is with lawyers who spend their lives shouting at themselves. We managed to pull the kicking and spitting Breeze off his lawyer and into the car... did I mention that he was seeing a psychiatrist?

You did – it wasn’t relevant then, and it isn’t terribly relevant now. So Breeze was kicking and spitting?

Yes, but at least he was in my car and we were speeding for Pankshin. Despite the beer in my blood, I didn’t need to be told that my small town legal career was over. The lawyer with the broken nose had made a positive identification at the scene of a major felony. And he was going to be very, very angry with me for a very, very long time. If I ever showed up in court again, I was going to be begging in the dock, not pleading at the bar. We drove to a friend of Marak’s that very night. My car was dismantled into spare parts before I finished counting the cash that the dealer put in my hand. My friends added to my purse, and I boarded the first interstate bus heading south the very next morning - with my new partner. That’s how I ended up here, Mister Madu, in an endangered bar in an endangered tribe.
    That’s how I ended up here.

Ncho aoli.

Say what?

That’s Courese for ‘I’m sorry for you’.
    Get me another beer, let me cheer you up with the story of my own life... Good gracious! What was that!

I'm afraid I have to close now, Breeze has fallen asleep

Copyright © Fonthouse Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.