Being friend with an Agbado Boy is not enough to become a real tiff. You might have tiff a piece of an item or many pieces before, and may have a fine tiff CV, but you are not yet qualify to be called a member. For the Agbado Boys, tiffing is not only about stealing, but how many of the rules one know, keep, and above all, the loyalty one show to the clan to get their trust if they must protect you. So, as I want to become a real tiff, a protected Agbado tiffing boy, I had to learn the rules of theft.
I decide to join the Agbado Boys because I am always complaining of hunger, and Dele, no, Skiribo, assure me that all my needs will be met if I join the “boys,” continuously follow the gang rules and prove my full loyalty.
Skiribo was my friend and the first person that try to teach me how to steal garri at Ile Epo market where they nearly catch me. As the whole market is making noise, he tell me that what oga look out for in tiff apprentice is agidi and obedience to the rules of tiffing.
I allow him to follow me because I think that if he follow me and he tell oga how good I do, I go become better apprentice. As we reach the trader, one fat woman, Skiribo pretend to be buying derica of rice. He has already tell me to steal anything from the shop, even if it is one cube of Maggi. But my tiff eyes was not on Maggi, but on her Ijebu garri. I imagine myself drinking the Ijebu garri with cold water after we have finish the mission.
Skiribo now move to the woman. He used style to tell me to stay at his back so that he will price with the woman. I shift my body forward. I wear oversized dansiki with big big pocket for front where I planned to keep some of the garri. As Skiribo is talking with the woman, I begin to codedly push the basin and I begin to feel the dry garri pouring straight inside my pocket. Bad luck catch me when one small girl see what I do and begin to scream a scream I have never in my life hear before. I imagine her olele dangling as she is screaming. Skiribo whose ears has quickly hear the alarm, and knowing that the market reserve jungle justice for tiff like us, run away, leaving me to my fate.
I call his name as I dribble my round body pass the angry sellers, especially the butcher man that have one hand who was sending curses as he pounce forward with a raised machete in the only hand that he have.
When I reach the gang spot, they receive my escape story with the warning that I should never again call any member by their birth name. That remain the first unforgettable rule in becoming a tiff that I learn.
The Agbado Boys are many, and I cannot know how many that they are. This is not because I am a recruit, but because the faces that I see every day are new, and the way they talk to each other show that they are not “Johnny Just Come” or JJC, like me.
And not even once did anybody call anyone birth name, except their alias. I can remember calling an elderly gang member “Mr. Jaguar” because he look older than most of the people I have see. The crazy laughter that follow embarrass me. The single story I know about him was from Skiribo who say that “Mr. Jaguar” was a road transport treasurer, but they have sack him because he like to tiff. According to Skiribo, “Mr. Jaguar” have been under the bridge and in Agbado for 24 years.
“What about his wife?” I ask.
“Wo ogbeni ask him yasef. Are you training to become a journalist or a thief,” Skiribo say.
No matter hard I try, I cannot bring myself to call him “Jaguar” so I just say “boss,” but then I can only call one person “boss” because we have only one oga. So, I avoid talk with him.
Aside from not calling members with their birth name, I also must get a new name for myself, like gang name.
For Skiribo, in picking name, you must look inside yourself and examine your special tiff talent. For that one-eyed Snakie, his talent is that he is fast to run away from danger. I have see him do this before when we go to tiff. Breaker say he is capable to break any lock, and that boy is very good at what he do. Many time, Shasko, the controller of Iyanaoba, have send for him for some special assignment, because he was one of the best young tiffs on the mainland.
Picka-pocko can put two of his fat fingers inside any zip that is open small and no one will notice. That is why I call him “Ghostie.” He hail himself as “Picka-Pocko, Omo iya adua ti o gboran.” He is one of the boys on the street who believe that his mother prayers protect him from evil. Maybe this was why he tiffed very well.
The excitement in their eyes when anyone hails them by these names is like juju, because it is saying their potentials and skill. But for me, I really cannot think of any name that will burst my brain because I have no tiff skill like the other young boys.
I had looked inside, but I see no special talent except for my fat tummy, which always come out from under my undersize polo. Or is it being someone that does not sleep deep? Or is it that I always bow down on the ground when I greet? No special talent, no uniqueness, nothing. I am just a 16-year-old boy orphan whose only relative kick out of their house in Lagos because I tell her how her husband is touching me.
No one will understand, not even Skiribo because to get a name is just easy for them. I wish someone will just name me, just like my father name me James, the name of his oyibo headteacher when he was in Standard 2.
The day I meet the oga who become the man I must look up to now as my father and leader was the day I learn some more rules. That day was a Tuesday.
He was a slim man, mid-thirty, but he command plenty respect. His office space was an abandon warehouse, near some paraga shops build in a popular big man area, roof-to-roof with aluminum sheet. He speak like he own my heart, and when he speak, another gang member will add word to whatever he say last.
“One rule here is never walking alone,” he say. My eyes were on the Liverpool shirt he was wearing. The shirt brought the inspiration, I think.
“You see,” he continue. “When we go to work, and you get your target possession, you are to quickly give the item to your partner, then that chain continues.”
“Yea, it continues,” they will add.
“You go do well.” He continue flashing the burning rizzla at me, before he raise the stick again to his mouth and puffing cloud of smoke into the air.
“Baba, wa serey! Ajepe aiye. Master, you are too good, may you live long.”
And so my session end. Since then, I have never walk alone. You either see me with Picka-pocko or Skiribo. But of course, oga mean never walk alone when doing a duty, and never chopping alone when the loot have come. My meeting with the oga did not still give me the courage to do this kind of never walk alone after I escaped that market chase.
To have a side skill was another rule I find helpful. While I was a pickpocketer at noon, I was a mechanic from dawn till mid-day. I did not see this as a tiff rule, because, like my mother tell me, an idle hand is the devil’s workshop. So as my hands are occupied with life work from 7am till 2pm, the devil had it from 2pm to 10pm. Equal distribution.
It was this skill that reduce my hunger complain. It was this skill that paid every day for my bed at night in one of the Katankowa’s thatched houses, and I was not sleeping under those igbo seller stalls who sell okrika American cloth.
I begin learning mechanic under Alfa Yerima, the famous handicap mechanic at Agege. I do this because I like his spirit of hard work and business. They said he have lost his legs when he was a young man when a mad drunk driver jam into his mother’s shop when he was attending to a customer. Some older men say they knew him as a child, when he will hawk moi-moi and koko on his head, and go around the street and motor parks selling for his mother. But when the driver jam into the shop, everything stand still for his mother who spend all her money to stop the doctor from cutting off his legs and hands. They say that it was this thinking and spending that kill her. They say that one day she have sat in the hospital when she was visiting him, and it was on that chair that she die.
This rumour story draw me to him, and when he saw that I was a young boy who wanted to learn skill, he allow me without guarantor. Severally, Alfa Yerima boast of my decisions to his customers that care to listen, and he one day wish some of the Agbado Boys will learn from me and turn a new leaf. This open the door of trust and affection, and most of Alfa customers develop interests in me. One of them who is a school principal and who always speak about his DPO son said I should come to their evening lessons so I will join book with my mechanic skill.
I had the idea to steal to prove my worth when the BlackBerry phone is popular. To successfully tiff a BlackBerry phone give one mouth among the Agbado tiffing boys. Skiribo has pickpocket 4, and Picka-Pocko have steal 15 of this phone. He gift our oga one of the BlackBerry phone. Everyone hail him, and his name never leave the lips of all the boys in Agbado. Even the leader of the Oke Aro boys send some of his boys to go learn from Picka-Pocko who have become a young hero. I watch all this and feel I needed to prove my nine months dexterity, too, to win the heart of my oga, and sit very close to him like Skiribo and Picka-Pocko who is also my age mates.
And this was the period that many of Alfa Yerima customers flaunt this device. Some carelessly left it in their car while we work on it.
I notice that the school principal is not careful with his BlackBerry, and this was why he become my target. Apart from coming every month to service his car, he sometimes drive in every week on Friday to chat with Alfa, and discuss my school plans with him. On this Friday, when he came and he and Alfa was busy talking about life and everything, I quietly sneak where he parked his car, behind the abandon house, and open the door, searching where he left his phone. After a few searches, I see it on the passenger seat, under a newspaper. I push it inside my boxer after I try to put it on but it did not on, so I know it is dead. The phone inside my boxers give me a mini hard-on, and I went back to working on the brake for another customer.
It was not long that the school principal ask Jide, another apprentice, to go bring him his phone when I hear Alfa complain that his phone always ring but was unavailable.
“I seldom use the BB,” he answered. “I bought it for vanity,” the school principal say, removing a small torch light phone from his pocket and raising it with a cackle like hyena. “I only swap SIMs to browse.”
Jide return and tell him that he cannot find the phone. The principal face was calm and he say something about Jide is a poor errand boy. Alfa who is shocked and confused by that report tell Jide to wheel his chair to the car where he begin to search. I have began to sweat, but I remember to be calm, one thing I have learned to be as a tiff.
Alfa call all of us to leave our work and come.
“This has never happened before in my shop, not even when cars were parked overnight for repairs,” Alfa told us, asking if anybody has seen “something.”
The principal, who now rest his back on his car, check his wristwatch, and later brought out his torch light phone.
“Erm sir, do you still have my GLO line, the number I told you I rarely used?”
“Yes,” Alfa reply.
“Kindly dial it, perhaps it must have dropped somewhere in the car.”
Alfa brought out his phone from his pocket, and dial the number after some seconds search, and right from my boxer, there was this buzzing from the vibration, before it rang aloud Evi Edna Ogholi Jealousy. All eyes and dropping jaws fix on me.
“Auzu billahi!” Alfa shout.
I cannot run or do anything. All I can do was kneel like Saul who met the Lord on his way to Damascus. I beg.
“Na my first time,” I say, “Alfa, na my first time, believe me, na my first time.”
And true, it is my first time, but this true confession did not stop the school principal to do the thing that he do next.
Seye’s words have appeared in Brittle Paper, Afro Rep, New Note Magazine, and have some forthcoming in Scrawl Magazine and Lunaris. He tweets at @Ohxeye.