We Don’t Kill Hungry Boys: A Poetic Analysis of Mbanefo Chibuike’s “A Lagos of Burnt Boys” by Ebubechukwu Bruno Nwagbo

A LAGOS OF BURNT BOYS | Mbanefo Chibuike

I let him break my throat
setting the words free –
it was when I saw a mob
break a boy into chunks of memories.
The words were him, “The Boy”
coming out to bruises and stench of blood,
wanting to hide beneath the resonance
in my ears, into a mending heart,
a betrayal of the hunger we danced into;
two boys preying in the market,
stealing into the light like darkness,
breaking our skin into firm grips,
hiding, running and other forms of survival,
we lead ourselves into these memories,
till they become the fire
burning in a Lagos suburb;
we don’t kill hungry boys, I hear a man say,
we pamper them like children,
learning to take their first steps
into the future, into heavens,
learning that the world is filled
with love, till they fall.
I let the words slip out,
the hotness burning my tongue,
foods in baskets merging into faces
blurry yet smiling, he had gone
to a city where boys are forgiven,
for wanting to stay alive, to quench
the fire in throats tasting of survival;
I scribble his name in my heart,
an image of God having nothing
to eat.

You pray not to find anyone burnt to death for trying to pilfer garri to survive hunger in this pandemic. In 2018, when Mbanefo Chibuike submitted this poem “A Lagos of Burnt Boys” for the PIN Food Poetry Contest, the price of garri was not as expensive as it is today in Lagos. Today, in Lagos, one paint container of garri is sold as high as 1,000 Naira. Currently, it is so expensive that the subjects of this poem cannot afford garri; the confidante of the common man.

Stealing into light, they attempt to come into the light that food brings via satisfaction, but cannot boldly enter into it. Being poor hungry boys with no money, as such no means, we see these children of light of whom the Holy Bible says “Ye are gods”  described in the manner of the devil:

– they steal
– they are associated with darkness instead of light
– they prey to steal, like the devil instead of praying as in the habit of God’s children.
– they are turned into fire instead of into heaven.
– they hide and run like thieves
– they fall into darkness instead of rising and shining in the light.

The poet goes through these tortuous experiences with them. We are not spared of the gory imageries as he is forced to narrate the burning of these Lagos boys. From his narration, we picture a witness undergoing brutal grilling in the hands of his captors. He writes

“I let him break my throat”
Why did he let his drillers break him?

It was necessary because in his broken state, the words were set free:

“I let the words slip out
the hotness burning my tongue”

In letting himself to be broken, he is able to relate most with the broken boys. We see in him an artiste who goes into self-mortification for the sake of his arts. In “A Lagos of Burnt Boys” Mbanefo does not stay away from his subjects, he goes neck-deep with them into their fire. He goes into self-mortification for their sake. He gives his body as a canvas where their memory is inscribed. He tells us “I scribble his name in my heart”—what love! What self-sacrifice!

His eyes become the lenses through which we see these bodies burn into ashes. When his lips are severed with blows, the poet recalls the bloodied lips of his subjects. When they aimed at his throat, his breath and speech became coarse, reminding him of how the boys managed to beg for life with tyres hanging over their necks. Through his scattered jaws, he is broken into memories of jungle justice; of how the holy than thou mob refused to “jaw jaw” over the boys’ case. Instead, they chose to fuel the war in the bodies of these beleaguered boys. Through the poet’s voice, their worlds become flesh and dwell among us. We see hungry boys kicking in us; we wear them in our skin; they are infused into our psych until we do the necessary.

Through this, the humanist artiste calls us to the place of empathy. It is only when we share in this experience that we would appreciate whom these boys are indeed. If we can drink the cup they drink, then we would plead on their behalf “let this cup be taken away from them… from us”, only then would we cease to be “armchair critics”. We would appreciate the voice of humanity in the admonition: “We don’t kill hungry boys.”

Instead of killing “hungry boys” or looking the other way while the hunger or irate mob sniff life out of them, Mbanefo tells us what to do;

“we pamper them like children,
learning to take their first steps”.

Instead of throwing them to hell, we would caution them in love, we would lead them by the hand and guide their wary tender feet into heaven…into a secure future.

This is a call to turn our prisons to real correctional centres, instead of the institutes of post-graduate degrees in crimes that they are at the moment.

When I first encountered Mbanefo Chibuike’s “A Lagos of Burnt Boys”, I went into labour for two weeks—I laboured to interpret it. I could see faces but they were blurry. I saw gods who in place of light preyed in the dark. Without knowing, without my permission, I became part of the:

“two boys preying in the market,
stealing into the light like darkness,
breaking our skin into firm grips,
hiding, running and other forms of survival,”

As I was running away from the poem, I was getting deeper into it, like these boys who were running away hunger only to be embraced by death for eating handfuls of garri. As the poet finally submitted himself to the gruesome drillers, I unbottled myself to my neighbours; two microbiology students, one artist and one student of hospitality and hotel management. Then “we lead ourselves into these memories”.

Even as a trained literary critic, I found myself led by the hands of these “novices” into the reality of the world Mbanefo Chibuike captured in this poem. I let them break into me:

I let him break my throat
setting the words free -,
it was when I saw a mob
break a boy into chunks of memories.
The words were him, “The Boy”
coming out to bruises and stench of blood,
wanting to hide beneath the resonance
in my ears….

I let them break into me, after which the words began to flow, my analysis became possible.
We saw the mob, we saw the fire burning (in the Lagos suburb). We saw, smelt, felt and touched the “bruises and stench of blood”, our tongues burnt and we wailed for these boys. The Anatomy student sitting on the same bench with us could not understand why “these five are crying over some burnt boys who only exist on the words on the screens of Bruno’s Blackberry”.

We were sober because in that mob, there were biologists who should have understood the workings of the stomach; there were religious people who knew about the power of redemption through forgiveness; there were hotel managers, cooks and mothers who came to buy food in the market. But they were blinded by rage, holy than thou views and jungle justice mentality that they all became morticians. Only one voice objected “we don’t kill hungry boys”.

Through this lone voice, Mbanefo Chibuike reminds us that we are first humans before anything else, that these boys were first humans before they became thieves.  The poet calls us to open our ears to the resonance of these burning voices and let our hearts burn and born into mending hearts.

As The Nation columnist Oyinkan Medubi says of the ‘mad’ artist, Mbanefo Chibuike indulges in things like starvation, self-immolation and self-destruction in an effort to present us a beautiful art in “A Lagos of Burnt Boys”.

Ebubechukwu Bruno Nwagbo
Moderator, PIN Food Poetry Contest


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