THE FISH


It all began with the fish. My parents came to visit me unannounced; it was more of a guilt visit, something like an apology. They had been enjoying themselves immensely because both of my older siblings have left home; Funke is married and Ade has gone off to Abuja to work. I thought they would be lonelier now that they were home alone but I was wrong. Instead, we seemed to have been some hindrance in their storybook love life. They were wearing the same dress prints, smiling at each other severally and I even caught them holdings hands twice while looking around my flat; ultimate lack of decorum.

“Where is Tope’s room?” They ask after my friend whom they knew since we were kids. They were not happy that I was leaving the hostel in my second year but they were consoled that I was going to rent a flat with Tope Adenle, someone they knew and an unknown third flatmate but he had to be good since he was Tope’s friend. The Adenle’s had been friends of the family for about twenty years, since their dad and mine worked on a project together. The friendship blossomed when they realised that there were other common friends between both families, like Tope and myself.

“His room is the one beside the kitchen, and the third is for Femi.” Femi Jeje, my second flatmate, my parents had not met him because this was the first time they were visiting me in my new apartment, although we moved in only two months ago. However, knowing my parents, they would have come to inspect, critic and pay for the flat with us. My new parents just sent money and believed their twenty two year old was old enough to make good decisions especially since it involved Tope Adenle. I was not complaining about the newfound freedom though, just wondering about my parents’ preoccupation with each other. They looked through the flat quickly and made a few comments, they especially wished they had met Tope and Femi at home, they also felt we could do more with the living room. I was not listening, they were doing the inspection hurriedly, otherwise my mother with her keen sense of smell and discerning eye for secrets would have noticed the packs of cigarettes we kept in the corner of the kitchen. They finished their tour.

“We brought you stew and some food stuff” my mum said “we know you won’t cook, but who knows when you may need it? And we also brought you fish.” They knew I loved fish, not just any fish but catfish, they brought me four large ones in a big plastic bag filled with water. That was the best part of their visit. We said our goodbyes and my parents departed leaving gifts for my flatmates.

sweet fish

My friends were excited about the fish, not so much because they had the same affinity I had for the taste but because of the spectacle the fish created when we put them in the bath in the central bathroom with enough water for them to swim at liberty. The next day, I decided to cook one of the fish; it was a disaster – too much salt, fresh blood still dripping from cooked fish and an altogether awful taste. My appetite for fish came to a halting low, even the memory of my mother’s special fish peppersoup could not wipe out the effect of this catastrophic episode. However, watching the fishes still pure magic; we would sit in the bathroom for hours, smoking and gisting while we watched the fish swim, twill, and jump in the water. Although they had a largely boring routine of swimming back and forth endlessly in our bath, the different ways they turned at the curves, the flicking of their tails and the seamless fin movements excited us nonetheless.

Eventually, one of the fish became slower, they had no food. Others began to nibble at the parts of the weak fish and in about two days, much of its tail and fins was bloodied from bites by fellow fish. Natural selection was happening in our bathroom. Since my catastrophic cooking experience, we had decided to wait for Omotola to help us with cooking the fish. Omotola was Tope’s girlfriend; lithe, beautiful and amiable. Everybody loved her and either loved Tope for making a good catch, or hated him because they were jealous she was with him. We tried to keep the predator fish away from the weak and prayed that Omotola would visit soon; she usually comes from her school about one hour away by road when school is on break or on some randomly chosen weekends. We pressured Tope to persuade her to come earlier than planned but he explained that just like us, Omotola is in second year and classes are really tough. We resigned to waiting.

While our fish were becoming carnivores, I noticed a change in my friends. They stopped sleeping at home and seemed quite jittery and on guard. I thought they were just being more serious with studies; however I became quite suspicious when they returned home in the mornings to ask if anything went wrong during the night. Were they expecting things to go wrong? I decide to ask them “what are you guys always up to, why don’t you sleep at home?”

Tope answered first “we need to study, not everybody is a genius like you John”

“But the exams are still far away”

“Early to bed, early to rise man. We need to prepare well”

“Good luck to you guys, but are you always in class alone?”

“Of course not, Deji, Ade, Emeka and some other guys all come around”

“Good luck once again” I decided to let it go.

The next day, I saw Emeka at our popular hangout in school; I decided to ask him about their midnight candles. He was surprised “I don’t come to school in the evenings, I love my sleep.”

Puzzled, I thought they were always in class with Emeka, but then it could be another Emeka. It was too flimsy to worry about anyway; late nights don’t automatically translate to better grades. I was about stepping out when I bumped into Richard, another of our friends; he pulled me aside and spoke in stealthy tones “are you going to be at the meeting tonight?”

“What meeting?”

“Be serious John, it is important, and they said there is an impending hit” his voice was becoming lower.

“What are you talking about?”

Then he was jolted from the inside; sudden realisation “Oh sorry, was just kidding with you, I need to get some things quick, see you later” and he hurried away.

I waved him off, it was probably stressed talk, I continued out of the cafe. I had only walked about fifty meters when I heard my name “John” I looked back, it was Maxwell. I thought he wanted to ask for loose change. Maxwell is the official campus urchin; he has been implicated in all of the major offences on campus – stealing money, cars, dealing drugs, prostitution, blackmail and extortion but has never been caught. We all kept him at arm’s length, gave him some money whenever he asked and definitely kept a rapport with him because for some strange reason, the women like Maxwell.

“Wait up, John”

“Hey, Max, how are you doing? I need to get going, will see you some other time.” I did not have time for loose talk.

“Wait up” he insisted. Then he pulled me by the arm towards the side of the road. “I was listening when Richard was talking to you in the cafe.”

Friendship

“Oh, don’t mind him, guess he was stressed.”

“He was not stressed, he actually made a terrible mistake.” In very low tones, Maxwell proceeded to tell me how my flatmates were cultists together with Richard, how they had planned some recently fatal and popular attacks on campus.

“That was why they moved away from campus.” He continued. I was dumbfounded.

“Have they been sleeping at home recently?”

“No, not at all” I replied.

“There is going to be a reprisal attack, the rival gang is planning to hit them back. That is why they have not been sleeping at home.” The information was becoming too much for me but I continued to listen. “The attacks are usually terrible, anybody those guys meet in the marked house gets burned. Do you know what that means? ”

“Eh burned…eh… or what?”I was stuttering

“Killed man, killed!” Maxwell repeated it whispering softly.

Shocked to my bones, I thanked Maxwell, told him I would be fine. I rushed home with thoughts flipping in my brain and filling my bladder up. As I was about to urinate, I looked at the fish in the bath and did not see aquatic vertebrates, instead I saw myself with bleeding tails and fins, and my friends – Tope and Femi nibbling at my skin, peeling it off and feeding on me. I showed the first sign of weakness, like the weak fish was slow; I did not belong.

I decided to run, fight back, belong or find a solution. In my confusion, I picked up the extra keys that nobody knew I had and decided to search Tope and Femi’s rooms. Halfway through my search, in Femi’s room, tucked in the closet towards the back, behind a pile of stationary books, I saw shiny cold metal – two revolvers! For a moment, I was paralysed; I was shivering but my limbs were too heavy to be lifted. Slowly, I gathered myself, crawled out of the room, locked it and sat down to devise a plan.

In the late afternoon, they came home, we talked about the day and they thought I was edgy and nervous. I told them I had a terrible headache. Femi told me Omotola would come by the next day for a short visit; I should remember to tell her to cook the fish. They left for the night again; they needed to study hard. That night, I slept over at the neighbour’s house with half-opened eyes.

Omotola arrived at noon the next day, Femi and Tope had not returned from class. I welcomed her with an exchange of the usual student banter; the bad and good professors, the trendy things on both campuses and much later; studies. She was quick to ask for our famous fish, “Where are the poor things? Femi told me they are the new source of entertainment for the house.”

“They are doing well.” I led her to the bath to see our friends.

“Wow, they are lovely. But that one is injured, oh my, so sorry” she was pointing at me – the injured fish. “We have to cook it first, before it dies.”

“No” I replied. “We’ll cook the healthy ones first; let’s give the poor guy a chance to heal.”

“Ok” she agreed. She was not one to argue.

I caught the healthy ones for her and she began cooking; in seconds, the sweet aroma was all over the apartment. After she finished, I gave her the key to Femi’s room, “Sorry, I forgot all the while, Femi left his keys, said he left something for you in the closet, behind the books.”

“Ok, thanks. I’ll just go find it.” She took the key and headed for the room. I waited in agitation, it seemed as if she had gone in for an eternity, but my watch told me fifteen minutes. I was about to knock on the door and encourage her to look behind the closet when she screamed and ran out. She fell into my arms; shivering, babbling and crying all at once. I held her close, patting and petting; it felt good. After about five minutes of quivering, she started chanting “guns, guns, guns….”

guns

“Calm down, relax, you’ll be fine….” I kept on imploring. She looked up at me as if she wanted to ask me questions; her eyes read “do you know about this?” Before I could muster a word, she broke free from my clasp, picked her bag and ran out of the house. I did not run after her, instead, I picked up the extra key and locked up Femi’s room like nothing happened.

My friends returned home later in the evening. We talked about the regular, “why didn’t you come to school?” Tope asked.

“I had a terrible headache.” Then Femi asked after Omotola, “she has not come, I replied.”

“She probably won’t come again, it’s getting late. I’ll call her later.” Femi explained.

While we were talking, the door bell rang. My friends scampered into their rooms, I wanted to rush after them then I called out “No, it’s nothing, it’s the bell.” Tope peeped through his bedroom door and shouted at me, “go and open the door!” he seemed to be holding something behind his back and suddenly my friend looked different; bigger and stronger, I felt something akin to fear.

I walked to the door and opened it, it was a man; burly, average height, in short sleeve shirt and cotton trousers. “It’s the police, C-I-D” he said in a deep throaty voice. I was still fumbling with a reply when he pushed past me and entered the house, in very swift movement, five similar men entered after him. As they approached the bedroom area, a shot rang out, heavy and tingling to the ears. I ran outside and laid flat on my face, clasping my ears with my hands.

The drama lasted about twenty five minutes and starred five shots in all. The first burly man came out first, then my friends in toll, handcuffed.  From my disadvantaged view on the ground,only my ears were injured after the episode. All the shooters either played with the guns or did not have enough lessons. When they passed by me, he pointed to the last man and said “take this one also.” But the last man did not arrest me, he only nudged me by my side with his shoes, “get up; we’ll pick you up later” he shouted.  The police always have reasons for not arresting their informants, especially those with timely prompts.

I brushed myself off after they left, walked into the house and put on some music. I dished myself some of the wonderful fish Omotola cooked before she left. It all began with the fish; the cooked ones. The way they preyed on the vulnerable, and their overly strong predisposition towards survival at the expense of the weak. These fish helped me save my life.

After my delicious fish meal, I walked to the bathroom and peeped at myself; swimming alone in the clear water. Time to heal.

CYANOSIS


Mrs Aderopo looked around her the room; marble tiled fourteen square feet furnished with a refrigerator, a thirty two inch flat screen television with cable channels, and a mahogany reading table. Only the quaint curtains and the mechanical bed reminded her that it was a hospital. The curtains served their purpose well enough; it is that way with hospitals – decor that always remind patients that they are not at home. She did not feel at home anyway, since she arrived, there has been no kindred spirit. The nurses just come in, do their rounds and draw Omosalewa’s blood endlessly; no one to spare a smile or empathize with her. Nobody to say a word of prayer with her, the things she often neglected when nurses at home did them for her.

Hospital room

She met some other Nigerians in the common room; she usually stops by on her way to and from the neonatal intensive care to see her baby. She conversed with three other women; Mrs Okonkwo who had brought her father for bilateral hip replacement, Mrs Belabo came with her husband who needed oesophageal stents after some road traffic injury and Mrs Agedah who was there for a common thyroidectomy. From their discussions, she realised there were more like them. Also, they were all referred by people who had been here before. They were all people of means, those who could afford health care elsewhere. She did not like their company because she did not belong in their group until recently. But they all had the same complaints – no shoulders to cry on, nostalgia for a country that could not provide what they seek outside and the wish to never return here. Omosalewa would finally have the surgery tomorrow, which was hope enough for now.

She waited in the common room again the next day when Omosalewa went into surgery. She sat there in silent expectation with Mrs Okonkwo, the hip replacement was also underway. Mrs Okonkwo was a different kind of woman; tall, graceful, beautiful and sophisticated. They talked at length, each describing their different lives and the paths that brought them here. Ann Okonkwo had left Nigeria as a teenager with her siblings when her father sent them to his brother abroad in search of greener pastures. They all did well and are presently scattered at various locations across the globe except Nigeria. While the old man who prompted it all never lacked money, he lacked the attention of his children, they seldom returned home to see him. She was forced to go back home when she heard that Baba had not walked for sixteen months because the arthritis had eaten into his bones! Finding solution automatically became her duty being the eldest and the only female. She heard they performed great surgeries here; she will send Baba home after the surgery and return to Dubai to man her business. Sade Aderopo brushed back her short hair, she might not be as beautiful as Ann but she knew her advantages. She turned the better side of her face to Ann and told her about her shop on Opebi road in Lagos where she sold clothes for the bourgeois. She talked about her husband’s flourishing private enterprise and the emerging social influence of her family. They exchanged details and Sade promised to visit Ann next time she was in Dubai to buy goods.  

They moved on to small talk, little chit chat about the weather and the different environment where they came to seek health. About two hours into their wait, a doctor appeared in his scrubs and motioned to Mrs Okonkwo. He explained some things briefly, they were far from Sade – their words inaudible but she saw her newfound friend slump slowly. She ran to her side to hold her, something had obviously gone terribly wrong. The doctor walked away slowly, Sade held Ann in her hands gentling consoling her as the latter sobbed uncontrollably. Thirty minutes later, Omosalewa’s surgery was announced successful, Sade was still holding her friend when the nurses came to ask Ann what to do with the remains of her father. They spelt out the options glumly; put the body in the morgue before going to Nigeria, bury at a land provided at a fee by the Catholic Church or make your own arrangements. For a moment, Sade thought she saw the young, beautiful nurses in their white sparkling uniform show some emotion, but they had turned around before she could confirm her suspicion. She felt cold, confused, she held Ann closer in a tight grip.  Graceful Ann, still genteel in grief shook herself loose and turned to her friend “Sade, I will bury papa here”

“Why?”

“There is nobody to go and meet at home and it would amount to a waste of money!”

“What about your brothers? Will they be happy about it?”

God's Angel

“I will explain to them, they have to understand, the village has not been kind to us and the only person that would have objected is mama and she died a long time ago. We cannot waste money carrying a dead body back to a hostile people.”

“I am so sorry” She consoled her friend endlessly.

Sade led her to her room, tucked her in bed and excused herself because she needed to see Omosalewa.

She cradled the baby in her arms, the surgery was truly successful. The child’s colour has changed, no more blue, pink had returned. She looked at the oxygen tubes going inside her baby; eager for them to be discontinued – they said seven days. She could not wait to go home, to tell her stories, to have shoulders to cry on and to cry and have people ask “why?”     

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Her names were Omosalewa, Omobolade, Omobolanle, Oluwabusayomi, Ayomipo, Mayowa, Tokunbo, and Elizabeth Aderopo. In this part of the world, we give children a lot of names, because the names have meanings. Usually they are prayers for the child and the parents or appreciation to God for the gift of life. When names are prayers, they can’t be too many in this rigorous journey of life; also you cannot thank God enough for the bundles of joy called children. Eventually the child only bears two of the plenty names; a first name and a middle name but the other prayers surely abide with the child through life’s journey. Omosalewa’s naming ceremony was especially grand and well attended. After the pastor performed the rites of naming, collection of offerings and the numerous prayers, the party began. The music was flowing non-stop from a local band that had set up their equipment in a conspicuous corner of the spacious compound of the Aderopos’. Food and drinks were surplus and inevitably well-wishers thronged eternally.

Happy couple with the newborn

She was the third child of the family but the first female, but she came at a time when business was booming. Mr Aderopo had just landed a juicy government contract a few months before the birth of the baby – the good luck she brought also reflected in her choice of names. She was delivered in England; to ensure she was a citizen of a more privileged land. A great gift to our children since the citizenship of our own country is without benefits! The Aderopos’ spared no expense in the birth and associated ceremonies of Omosalewa’s birth; there were pictures and much video coverage to remind them of the memorable moments. She deserved it; one of her names Omobolade means she came with the wealth.

The day after the elaborate celebrations, Omosalewa started turning blue, first at the fingers and toes. Then it became difficult for her to breathe and in two hours the blue hue had started to spread to the face. The Aderopos rushed to the hospital, they had absolute confidence in their hospital; a reputable private hospital in Lagos with a grand structure and multi specialist disciplines. Though expensive, it offered good healthcare. The paediatrician – a young and petit woman who looked more like a baby herself – put Omosalewa on oxygen immediately, the familiar pinkness returned to her skin.  She pored over the baby some more, poking her endlessly with a stethoscope. Mrs Aderopo grew tired of waiting, she asked “What is wrong? Why is my child turning blue?”

“Cyanosis.”The paediatrician turned and told her with a bland face, like she was supposed to know the meaning.

“What does that mean? Doctor Olaolu, please explain.” Mrs Aderopo was on familiar turf; she had delivered and nurtured two children in this hospital.  

“It is the absence of oxygen in the blood.”

The doctor further explained the condition to the bewildered parents; they discussed the causes and suggested that Omosalewa’s case might be related to a congenital heart defect considering her age, rapidity of development of the disease and her examination findings. The baby would need an echocardiogram to confirm the diagnosis. They would need to go to the general hospital for the test; the hospital machine just became faulty yesterday.

The Aderopos hated the general hospital, it was always too crowded with long waiting time and without the personalised service they were used to, but they had to go this time. After waiting for two hours at the hospital, they finally got to see the paediatrician. A petit woman who seemed quite disinterested, she introduced herself “Good afternoon, I am Dr Bodunrin.”

Can you blame them?

 She confirmed Dr Olaolu’s diagnosis but gave them a date for two months to come for the procedure. Mrs  Aderopo got angry “Do you think this child will be alive in two months if we don’t do the test? She is turning blue!”

“Madam, the test will only tell us what is wrong, it is not the solution. I can’t tell if your child will still be alive but I have a long list of people waiting to have the same procedure and they need it just as much as you do.” The paediatrician replied her, dangling a list of names nonchalantly.  

“You don’t even care and you call yourself a doctor, how can you talk like that?” Mrs Aderopo had started boiling over when her husband dragged her by her arm out of the doctor’s office.

“Calm down Sade, we will do it tomorrow”

“Where, how?” she was already crying. “I have been carrying my child around in an ambulance, on oxygen and these useless doctors don’t seem to care, why?!”

“Relax, tomorrow we’ll go to Unique hospital, I talked to Dr Olaolu, she says there will be no problem once she is on oxygen.”

Unavailable

Unique hospital is one of the most expensive hospitals in Lagos, a private enterprise that flourished because that dearth of efficient alternatives. It boasts of great equipment and knowledgeable specialists, located in a high brow part of Ikoyi, the hospital is a reserve for the affluent. The Aderopos did not care about money any longer even though the echocardiogram would cost ten times the price at the general hospital. They waited for only fifteen minutes before they were called in to see the paediatrician, none other than Dr Bodunrin. Albeit, a different one, she quickly apologised for the misunderstanding yesterday, curtseying severally “Sorry about yesterday, I just didn’t want you to waste your time and money. The machine at the hospital is not as good as the one they have here. You have come to the right place especially for this kind of emergency.”

The Aderopos were dumbfounded – an emergency that could wait for two months, apparently Dr Bodunrin’s pay check at the general hospital and at Unique differ in similar terms to the prices of the echocardiogram. She pored over the baby endlessly after the procedure; she even called in another paediatric cardiologist to give a second opinion.

The final verdict in layman’s terms as the Aderopos demanded it; Omosalewa has a hole in her heart that would require surgery.  The surgery cannot be performed here because even Unique does not have the needed equipment. However, they would liaise with their partners in India to have the surgery done. The cost was unthinkable but the Aderopos had to save Omosalewa.

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Mrs Aderopo was at her shop just a week after she returned from India when she noticed that Omosalewa was turning blue again. She picked the baby up, called her husband and headed for the hospital.  She sped past every moving thing on the road, casting side glances at the baby as the hue increased towards the lips. At the last traffic stop before the hospital, she noticed that the baby had stopped breathing; Omosalewa was cold when she picked her up. The baby died before getting to the hospital, she was tired of a healthcare system that did not care for her or perhaps her names were not many enough.

IN BETWEEN


In Between

The intrigues of being in the middle have always been with me, although I thought they had ended during my childhood and early teenage years. They came back to haunt me recently in a strange manner. I was born into a family of three children as the second child; I have an elder brother and a younger sister.  When we were children I felt the pain and frustration of being in the middle. My brother would return from school with tales of his new class and we would all listen with rapt attention. When it is my turn to recount my ordeal, I usually notice the attention waning gradually. Then the story usually ends-thankfully I guess for my parents- with “Oh, just do what Dele did when he was in that class”. I don’t blame my parents; I guess new stories just attract most humans more than repeated tales with a change in a few of the characters. They could recite the nuances of all the teachers now, their best clothes and even their favourite hairstyles. My mother especially tried to allow me air my stories happily by feigning audience but I always see the glint in her eyes when my brother starts to talk about the class that none of her children have attended before. While I feel neglected and ignored, my sister is right there with a mess for a lunch box, she only has stories of silly things she did with her friends during the break period. I guess they make for good entertainment too because my parents want to listen and the glint is back in my mum’s eye.

Classroom

I only sit and wonder at why she cannot grow up and stop talking about silly things. Then, I conjure ways to match my brother either in the act of storytelling or in doing something new for the first time. That is the life of the man in the middle; the one or those ahead seem too far away while the ones behind really need help. I want to bring my sister up to where I am whilst aiming for where my brother stands. It is like running forward with your face turned backward. However, I realised it is not always blissful for the guy ahead, he bears responsibilities. My brother was the only one who had the privilege of knowing why daddy would not come home the night he had an auto accident. I was too young to be told. My sister meanwhile was fast asleep. I was too old to sleep because I knew something was wrong but too young to be told what was wrong! Who said I did not want those responsibilities, but will I be able to handle them if given? I don’t know. It has always been that way. It is like a spectrum of drunken men, the guy ahead is clear-eyed, everybody depends on him and he is sure of himself. The man in the middle is tipsy while the last man is drunk. The tipsy man wants to behave like the clear-eyed fellow and he also seeks to help the drunken man. The first man will seek to help the last man because obviously he needs the help the most; he believes the second man can take care of himself. He should be able to anyway, if he concentrates on only one path but he is torn between two ways. When it is time to apportion blame the tipsy gets all the blame since he is liable to making mistakes and he is considered by all to be in his right mind. The drunken man is blameless; he is too influenced to be held accountable for his actions! The man in between always has the greatest dilemma.

Recently, on a mission for an international organisation to help curb the meningitis epidemic in northern Nigeria, I was paired with another doctor as part of a team. Richard is a European, we became friends quickly. We share certain interests and it also helped to work as friends. Habitually, our conversations revolved mostly around medicine, we compared the practice of the profession in our different countries of origin. He respects the knowledge of Nigerian doctors, their ability to manage patients without some investigations which he considered essential. However, he mentioned the disadvantages of this kind of practice which includes wrong diagnosis and increased resistance to drugs that are prescribed carelessly. He was quick to add anyway that Nigeria is better than many other countries. He mentioned some that don’t even have a healthcare system. “Nigeria does not need aid” he said, “She has enough doctors and abundant resources to provide proper healthcare for her citizens”. “Nigerian doctors do well in foreign countries thus they have no excuse for below par performance at home”. Richard obviously did not have enough facts to comment appropriately on Nigerian doctors but he was not condescending; it was professional conversation with candour. I imagined working in an environment with adequate facilities. I also wondered how people in the countries without healthcare have managed to stay alive. It was not difficult to identify the problem; Nigeria in the middle.

Farm

Today, we visited some settlements; they had earlier refused to be vaccinated. We were to find the reasons for their refusal and convince them about the importance of the vaccines. Our first stop was a little village of about two hundred inhabitants; they had a spokesman who could speak some English. They welcomed us without reservations. The spokesman explained immediately we asked that they were very grateful for the offer but they would not partake because they do not believe it will make any difference. His speech was garbled but we understood him perfectly. We tried to make a case for immunization but there was no common ground, they were adamant. The spokesman told us his story, he is a farmer, and not lazy he claims. He tills his land once the rains start; he plants enough crops for his family to eat. He has three wives and fifteen children, they help with the farm. The male children herd his cattle and sheep.  He has friends at the village square where they gather to play games and drink cuddled milk. The village is made up of families like his; they have a satisfied life, they do not want external influences like our vaccines to corrupt their children. The disease will only kill their children if God allows it.

I looked around him, children in tattered clothes struggling over our empty can of coke, lean women carrying gourds filled with water, definitely from far distances. Signs of poverty surrounded him but he did not know it! I told him the correct order would have been for him to get an education, start mechanised agriculture, build silos and barns then he would have food in and out of season. He could feed his family, sell more for good money and drink cuddled milk all day. He looked at me and laughed, his teeth were stained yellowish brown with kola nut. He asked my age, I observed him before answering; he should be about five years older than me. I told him my age, “Are you married?” he asked immediately, “No” I replied. He laughed again, longer this time. I cringed, who should be laughing at whom? He recovered “you can chase after the books forever” he said “but you will eventually have to do the necessary things”; he closed with a little more laughter. I felt stupid, why not? I was laughed at, but this man does not reason like me, we are different. The things I consider important are trivial to him and vice versa. I wanted to continue the dialogue when Richard nudged me “we should go” he said. We bid our hosts farewell, we shook hands and waved long enough to reduce the friction.

On our way, we conversed about the encounter. I admitted I made a mistake trying to solve a century’s problem in a minute. Richard told me to calm down; “the man does not feel any pain about his situation”, he explained “because he does not know any better, he is so innocent”. How could he not know it? I think some things just feel better. Then I realised that he was better than me. I know my situation, I know it can be better but I cannot make it better! He does not know so he does not need to make it better. Moreover, unlike me he feels no pain. I feel the pain for my own circumstances and also for his too. I want to work in a perfect hospital and I also want to turn a subsistent farmer to a plantation owner, even against his wish. The farmer thinks I’m too ambitious. Richard thinks his innocence is beautiful. If I decide to revert and become like the farmer I will be seen as complacent. Can I even replenish my ignorance? I have to stand where I belong. It is my life, my burden and my identity; to be the man in between – for now.

THE WELL


The well

Two days ago, I went to the well early in the morning to fetch at the start of the day. I looked down into the well and realised something was different; usually the water body takes a circular form after the concrete rings that were used to construct the well. Instead of the beautiful, round and clear circular water body, our water looked like an apple with a small part of it bitten off. The small bite was represented by the sand that was gradually encroaching into the water body. Though wet, the sand was solid, standing at about six inches above the water itself and sloping down irregularly to join the water. While fetching you must be careful to throw the fetcher into the water part and not the sand part of the apple. If you hit the sand, you risk a chance of contaminating the water for the next thirty minutes or thereabout. It is the beginning of the year; we are in the dry season! I looked up at the cashew tree that has a symbiotic relationship with our well; it gets water for its roots while it shelters the well with its generous branches. The flowers of the great tree were sprouting; it will soon be seed time.

Then I remembered it was the same way last year, exactly the same. I deduced my first lesson; life is a circle. Each beginning awaits its end as surely as each end awaits another beginning. Hence it is common for events in life to reoccur in exact same manners since life is a series of ends and beginnings. Also, contrary to popular saying, there are two constant things in life, not one. Not change alone. They are beginnings and ends or ends and beginnings in whatever order. Remember, they form change!

In the dry season

My second set of lessons came in torrents as I fetched the first bucket out of the well. I imagined the usually round water body was our lives. It is no longer complete since we have started to use it. The encroaching solid sand is the past and the depleted water body is the future. We are young and strong, thus barring unforeseen events, our future is colossal compared to our past. The future represents the big, liquid, clear and unformed water body while the past appropriates the formed, solid, cloggy and small clump of sand. The past is gradually eating into the future, either we fetch the water or not the sand keeps growing. The future is unformed; I could still manipulate it to my advantage. If I throw the fetcher carelessly, it will fall on the sand. I should not allow my past to cloud my future! The sand stands higher and easier to reach than the water, I should reach deeper for better results by looking far into the future. Above all, make good use of the future, it is steadily being depleted!

My third lesson came out of an event in the past. The sand was growing and the water was reducing, then suddenly, it rained! The sand disappeared and the water became a big circle once again but it was dirty. Eventually after two days, it cleared out and was as clean as ever. The rain is none other than the grace of God; it can wipe out the past and renew a future without recourse. However when that grace comes with the blessings, do not rush. The two days of dirty water provide a time of rethink. This period ensures that when the sand starts forming again, when we look in retrospect, we are merrier. We dip into our clean circle after these two days knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. At those times when we follow unsure paths, lets pause and ask for the GRACE.

The well of knowledge.

I learnt my last lesson on returning to the well two days later. The sand had disappeared and the water was a big circle again but it had not yet rained. I realised water had sprung out of the well! Moreover it happened because nobody fetched the water for a day. Definitely we all have a spring inside us; we can renew ourselves from the inside. The time, the day without fetchers; those are the moments we spend alone musing over past actions and strategising on future ones. In essence, those periods are powerful. The periods you spend with yourself in constructive thinking. They renew the future and deplete the past, they give us more alternatives. Please, no matter how little, spend time alone.

After all of these, I renamed our well the well of knowledge!!!

THE DIPLOMAT


Susan is always good company, we would talk and talk about everything in the world and always find common ground. It was not polite conversation; we had our differences a lot of times but they were fewer than our agreements. It was all the more interesting considering the fact that she was North American, had only been in Nigeria for two weeks and we met her ten days ago. We talked about everything. She was also beautiful with a great sense of humour; I guess that made it very easy to talk to her. A good ability to flirt also spiced our conversations appropriately. When I told her I liked her hair whenever it was wet and often requested that she wash it for me, she called me a kinky guy “Guess you just wanna see me in the shower”

“That’s a little more than I asked for but I wouldn’t mind, might as well wash it myself”

“Pick a date”

“Tomorrow”

“Naaaa, you got it wrong, if you want it, you have to want it today”

“But there’s no shower here” we were on our way to a distant village hospital and won’t be back at the hotel we were staying with the other members of the intervention group till much later in the evening. We are both doctors working for an international Non Governmental Organisation on an emergency mission for the measles epidemic in Northern Nigeria.

“Guess you just can’t have it then”

our lonely roads

“Cheat”. We would laugh and switch to some other topic; sports, business or world politics- we had endless fora.

But we never really talked about Nigeria. I would have asked but I guess I was just waiting for her to gather material; two weeks can be a short time. And because we both laughed a lot when we talked, I assumed she was enjoying Nigeria. However, I decided to discuss the country today.

We were sitting at the back of a SUV with the windows down and a lot of breeze was blowing around as the driver maintained a hundred kilometres per hour speed. We were at the height of the dry season and the Northern Nigeria sun was about 40 degrees overhead, the breeze was hot and dry but thankfully not dusty because of the well paved road. If the driver had to decelerate to about fifty kilometres per hour for any reason, we would start to sweat not minding our loose fitting clothes. She was wearing an all cotton grey pair of trousers, a similar tee shirt and sandals. I was dressed in cream cotton trousers, a striped short sleeved shirt with sandals too. Our raffia hats sat beside us; our ready shelter outside the vehicle.  It was then I decided to create a distraction from our sizzling flesh.

“What do you think about Nigeria”? I asked.

She paused and looked at me; her face read “I’ve been waiting for that”

Then she launched into a tirade “Your weather is hell, your food is nice, much less populated than the figures say……….”

“Wait, slowly. Let’s take it one by one. ” I stopped her before she could raise her voice. Instead of starting a long lecture about the densely populated South as against the North where we were presently or the comfortable Jos climate, I decided to allow her to talk.

“First, talk about the people” I told her.

“They are ok, but they seem very disrespectful especially towards themselves”. She raised a hand before I could interject “Like when we are at the restaurant and they keep shouting at the waiters and waitresses- bring me food, bring me food!” she demonstrates, raising her hand motioning for someone to come over in a condescending manner.

I was confused and lost for words, how could I possibly explain to this young woman that though she has visited about six states in Nigeria; she did not know Nigeria. Also, the restaurants are the not the place to judge a people as loquacious or rude.

“That is not right, that applies to only a few people. Just a handful in a bag of grain!”

friends of the hot sun

“No, I have other examples; I see some of the Nigerian staff talk to the drivers. They do the same when they want to buy things along the road – just order the hawkers around and shout at them without restraint.”

“Ok, now you are talking about haves and have nots.” I had to change the direction of my defence “That is a common phenomenon in the society of haves and have nots.” I decided to take my argument a step further- ingratiate a little. “That might not happen where you come from because over there unlike here, basic things like education, houses and food are not privileges.”

She seemed to pause and listen, then I continued “here, because only the privileged gets things done, he tends to lord himself over the others.”

“No” she disagreed instantly “I have been to nine African countries, eight of them much worse economically than Nigeria and not in any one of them did I see such a display of arrogance.”

I was at a loss for a reply, my exposition on the development of an egalitarian society had plunged me into deep waters. I had never been out of Nigeria, a fact that I had revealed to her in one of our friendlier discussions. How would I tell if people in the Kalahari stand on anthills and blow horns at waiters before getting served.

“I still don’t think it’s a Nigerian thing” I had to stand my ground.

Before she could reply, the driver saved me. He announced from his seat that he wanted to buy fuel. She didn’t hear him so she asks me “what did he say?”

“We need to buy fuel”

“Why do you guys call it phooel?” “It is pronounced phiil” she retorted with a funny look.

I laughed and replied “Why do you guys call it gas? After all it’s liquid.” She laughed and I was happy I had doused the tension. It will not augur well for work if we had differences and lingering arguments. However, I would have loved to tell that if a people were more than a tenth of a billion, then, they deserved to have their own diction; suitable and well adapted to their natural tongues.

We bought the “phooel” and continued our journey, the ten minute stop had taken its toll on us despite our loose clothing. We both fanned ourselves with loose sheets of paper and I complained about the heat. She looked at me and asked “Why are you complaining? Is your skin not made for this weather?!”

I turned, a wry smile “Do you go about with these kinds of clothes in winter?”

She laughed; a short one, from realisation rather than amusement. Guess it struck her that the eagle and the ostrich are both birds regardless of differing habitats. Somehow, they must share similar problems.

A strange quiet settled on the vehicle, our discussion had become a competition. Although, nobody was keeping scores but obviously the last exchange favoured me. I had to break the silence, we still had about two months to spend together on this project, and artificial reticence will definitely be a handicap. I waved the driver down, I had to buy something.

“I need to recharge my phone”

“No problem, I hope I can get some mangoes meanwhile” She had developed a strong liking for the fleshy fruit; she said it was really expensive back home. It is like apples for us.

“Sure”

We got her mangoes first, well picked greenish yellow beauties. She was all smiles, till I bought my recharge card. I paid and collected the card but on second thoughts I returned the card to the vendor “scratch it for me” I said.

She looked at me and said “I have heard all about these things, is that what you do when you don’t want to buy duds?”

“No, I have never bought a fake card before, just don’t want to get my nails dirty” I am sure my expression said “Where did that come from?”

She smiled, somewhat apologetically, I felt like knocking myself. I didn’t want her to apologise, I did not want to build a wall of formalities between us. I finished my transaction hoping we would not drift further apart. We proceeded to the vehicle; she clutched her mangoes while I fiddled with my phone. Not exchanging a word, we continued our journey in the quiet we thought we left behind.

Thankfully, we reached our destination in about five minutes, work began. We spent the next five hours diagnosing infirmities, providing solutions, administering vaccines and recording figures. It was a very busy albeit fulfilling day. Our health station was packed with people and we were happy our reports would show better response to the aid our organisation provided.

work station

The wonderful work day provided great conversation during the journey back. We found solace in science, discussing the different patients we managed and their various presentations. All our previous squabbles were buried and forgotten, or so I thought.

We were about fifteen minutes drive from our hotel when she turned, looked at me and called my name “Tope”, sounds like “Toppy”  she was poised to give a speech “I was in Congo sixteen months ago for a similar project, it was a very wonderful place, the forest of green trees was dense and the earth was red.”

I kept wondering about the geography lesson but I decided not to interrupt, she continued “there were no paved roads and flashy vehicles, there was only one doctor in the whole province, and it was one of my best experiences in Africa. Here, it is much different, this is not the Africa I envisaged” she was shaking her head and providing some emphasis “no, not at all”, a befitting end to a great speech.

She looked at me expecting a reply – a rebuttal or an agreement; I didn’t know which of them she expected most.

I threw my head back and laughed a deep throaty laugh, I allowed the ripples to rock my body and the sound to rock the vehicle. She joined me for a little time, nodding as she giggled “it’s true, it’s true.” I stopped before she felt derided. Then she asked me why I was laughing, “nothing” I said “I just think it is very amusing”.

I realised it was better to just laugh. I would not ask her which part of Congo she went to or why her African experience would only be fulfilled if there were primitive living conditions. Moreover, I could not tell the answer to her question; it was the first time I was happy, indeed overjoyed that Nigeria disappointed somebody. I laughed again, shorter this time, then, thought of our SUV as the restaurant and the young woman opposite me – the customer, screaming at me; the waiter. She did not realise she was screaming at me, above the din of the powerful engine of our transport and the hot air blowing past, I could hear her screaming at me exactly the way Nigerians scream at waiters!

I could not correct her; I did not want to destroy the bilateral agreements. Is that not why we all keep quiet and employ diplomacy? I would not like to jeopardise the possibility of receiving this kind of aid in the future by being tactless. It was a well paying job and the interview was gruelling. I switched the discussion back to the more agreeable vaccines.

Susan and I enjoyed a great work relationship for the next two months. Evidently, I never asked her to describe a people again, science and her hair made interesting enough topics for conversation. I never got to see her hair in the shower too, guess I was too diplomatic.

It has been years since that day but anytime I enter a restaurant, I remember to shout at the waiters “BRING ME FOOD!”

Proudly Nigerian!!!

RAYS OF HOPE


Up Nepa

Dare is my friend and we share an apartment. The power supply in our neighbourhood is erratic-averaging about twelve hours per week – and we have adapted accordingly. We use two power generators; one replaces the other when we notice a strain on any. We generate our own electricity for about twelve hours every day; from 7pm in the evenings till 7am in the mornings. The period varies depending on how early we get back from work. On weekends the generators work for almost 24 hours. The perpetual hums of the generators have become a part of our life, a rhythm – like the songs of birds, feet crushing fallen leaves in dry season or the movement of the winds! As such, a regular and expected event; when absent, it feels like the world is coming to an end.

A Nigerian's best friend

Last Friday, we got back from work and met the lights on; it was a very strange sight. More so, because we never have power at night, the few hours we have all week is always during the day. We only get to know through the neighbours or sometimes when we meet almost cold water in the refrigerator. Dare, always the cautious party was particularly scared of this august visit of electricity.

“Put off the television, make sure the stabilizers are on delay, better still let’s use the generators as usual” he shouted out instructions without making any effort to carry them out. It was a frantic effort, a show of concern and frustration. It is common knowledge that when you have power excessively and at strange times, the consequences are grave. We had a bad experience two months ago – five light bulbs and four electrical appliances were blown up SWAT style.

“Relax, who knows? Maybe things are just getting better” I tried to calm him down, we could sure use the extra money we will save from burning fuel on the generators and probably help the world by releasing less carbon into the atmosphere. A Nobel Prize might be in the offing; Al Gore did it!

“Don’t start, you know I don’t believe in the things are getting better stories” Dare replied. I call him the Nigerian pessimist.

“Ok, but let’s enjoy it while it lasts this evening” I was in no mood to argue.

Power Holding Company of Nigeria.

“It’s just painful, you guys see a flash of light in months and you go on about things getting better or electricity breathing a new life ” the Nigerian pessimist pressing on “wait till you see what your fellow ray of hopers will say at the meeting point tomorrow.”

Ray of hopers; that is what he calls those of us who say things are or will get better. And the meeting point is the place where we all meet. An apt name for our local tavern, however it has become more than a tavern to some of us – a group of young working bachelors who live in the neighbourhood, we pride ourselves in being intellectuals. We gather at the meeting point every weekend to discuss issues; topics range from football to politics but Nigerian situations always have the greatest audience. We argue all day over drinks, shouting and criticising the government endlessly. An external observer will most likely see us as a bunch of self righteous, educated, proud and boisterous crowd, those especially likely to stay at home when others carry placards to protest about the very issues they argue over every day.

“Let’s wait till tomorrow” I wanted to reserve my rebuttal till we get to the meeting point where my dependable ray of hopers will be there to support.

Dare would have continued despite my attempts at dropping the gauntlet but I was saved by the commencement of one of our favourite sports shows. Arguments forgotten or rather postponed, we settled down to watch the show.

Midway through the show, electricity went off unceremoniously. Rather than the event generating “I told you sos”, we both heaved a sigh of relief, grateful it was not ceremonious. We hurriedly put on our generator, continued with our sports show and life returned to normal – the birds were humming again. Our lives had been unexpectedly interrupted by electricity for four hours.

Saturday arrived in a few hours and we all gathered at the meeting point. As usual, we started with a lighter issue; how cleavage was turning to boobage. The contributions were loud and varied, opinions widely differing. Our usual divides were obliterated on this issue. While some felt it was a form of harassment for women to put the precious orbs in unhindered public view, others felt everybody had the right to wear whatever they wished.

The tavern

“Keep your eyes away!” Emeka the major proponent of the rights movement shouted.

“Why? If you leave it open, then you want it to be seen and eventually touched” Chris replied.

The argument continued with similar exchange flying in different directions. After minutes of unresolved altercation, we sheathed our swords in ribaldry.

Inevitably, we moved on to the issues of national concern. We had hardly started deliberating when a member of the quorum, an accountant, a valid intellectual and respected discussant started “Did anybody notice for how long we had electricity yesterday?”

beer

Nobody answered –it was rhetoric – but he had our ears, he was that respected. He continued “it just stayed on like it was never going to go off; surely things are getting better, that was massive improvement!”Instantly, others started commenting in similar terms, they were happy and thankful for the four hours of electricity we had yesterday.

I looked at Dare across the table; he caught my eyes and his expression undoubtedly “I told you so”. But he was wrong because the opinions flying around were not only from ray of hopers. Even sceptics like him commented alike.

I smiled and withdrew from the crowd, mentally not physically, I became an external observer. In my observations, the appreciative crowd looked very stupid having forgotten what happened two months ago, and has been perpetual. Moreover, it is foolish to describe four hours as long with emphasis! Then, I thought again, were Dare and I being unappreciative?

Is there any?

The power company would surely crawl before it flies. Perhaps, tomorrow we would have power for twelve hours and in a fortnight for twenty four hours. The butterfly was once a caterpillar and airplanes used to be kites. However, all issues of concern in Nigeria; corruption, electoral reform, effective education and their numerous peers are usually discussed across generations – often with nostalgia for the better yesterdays. They affect our mores and values as they are passed from fathers to sons in literature and verbally. Comparably, our dear power authority has been alternating between crawling and bedridden for decades. Despite the incessant mention these matters generate, we never achieve improvement, at least enough to change our stories!

I thought about my country; a place where the inadequate is enough, enough is luxury and luxury lives in the imagination. I ordered beer, then more beer and for the first time, I got drunk at the meeting point.

MENINGITIS


We expected the rain for different reasons this year; usually it’s because of lack of water. The world is like a gourd; half filled with water, it is tipped on its side. We reside on the side where the water is leaning away from thus when we dig a well; we have to reach almost to the end of the world to get water. It gets worse when the rains refuse to come. When there is no water, the cows become lean and the crops refuse to grow.

This year, the baobab and guinea corn in the store could still sustain us for a year and the cows could still survive on streams turned puddles. However, the disease has come with terrible strength. It has killed a lot of children and some adults; we know it is only the rain that usually stops its rage. It killed Aminu my immediate junior one, only thirteen! The adults say the last time it got this angry was ten years ago, then I was still a little girl. They say I was lucky to escape the decimation. Nobody knows the cause, but my mother once said something while scolding me for not fetching water; “you little rat, only fifteen, you have refused to obey your mother. God punishes disobedience with meningitis!”It is a terrible punishment indeed; I think somebody needs to speak to God. The disease makes them so hot and makes their necks stiff, they cannot say yes or no, it takes away their choices. Our village doctor at our little hospital tried but people still died; maybe God does not really hear his voice!

Haruna lost two children to the disease. He is the one who has asked for my hand in marriage. I overheard him telling my father that he will come for me after the rains; he surely needs the money from the harvest for the marriage. That is my own little reason for waiting for the rains. I have become the envy of every little girl in the village. They all know about the impending marriage now even though I told only one of them, my best friend.

The coming of the baturi(white people) made a difference though. They came with some black friends, they all seemed very happy together; like they had known one another for ages. They brought drugs to treat the ill victims together with injections which they gave everybody to stop the spread of the scourge. Their coming also created excitement in the village. All the little children gathered around them, not me, I’m old now. Sometimes however, I move closer to observe them. They seem to speak through their noses, I noticed that some of them were speaking to each other and could not understand themselves.  Are they not from the same place? They are a strange lot, these white ones with skin like pap and hair like horsetail! I did not take the injection though, if it passes from person to person, I nursed Aminu throughout his illness, what about ten years ago? I guess God is afraid of punishing me in spite of my many sins. Anyway, the white man can surely talk to God, perhaps their black friends too. The disease lost its power when they came with their injections.

The rain is falling now, heavily, seems like cats and dogs. If we cannot speak with Him, I think God really wants to talk to us now!