I had returned to my residence that notable evening – one which had in its grasps the retrospect of the unbecoming adventures I had earlier set out to excavate behind the borders of my village in the early morning. My entourage of personal files enclosed in a brown paper envelope and the clumsy looking wares I wore on both feet were somewhat a piece of thrash when the dusty streets of Umuahia town had devilishly caned and perused the leather and the sole to nothing other than the obscure loads of dusts well laid out on each pair.
We Africans acknowledge a proverbial saying which says that the earth is very hard and whatever that demands to walk on it should have feet that can debate comfortably with the ground. My dilapidated shoes were mine and I must say they’ve walked through Umuahia. The compound where I called home was like the very ones littering the ghettos of Lagos. The landlords built each room so that it faced the other in the little compound and the others so on in the exact sequence. The neighborhood was solemnly filled with vast emptiness which at the very least was not surprisingly undeniable.
I had barely reached the door when the fragile thoughts of my beloved Kivi arose from within my mind as I once again pondered and reflected on the lewd reasons behind my want for her lingering presence. We hadn’t set eyes on each other in a week and I was craving her touch like ants pursue the scent of sugar cubes in wooden cupboards. That was how I thought of it at the time.
As soon as my legs hit the threshold of my door, I looked around to see nobody was watching. I thrust my finger under the mat in front of my doorstep for that was where I hid my keys so Kivi could easily open up without much stress. The splattering sound of the key chain trampling and slinging the cemented floor beneath the foot mat was minutely audible.
You must by now be wondering who Kivi is. I’ll tell you in no plenty haste. She was the damsel I had met on my way back from camp a few years aback when I had concluded, to applause, the very thing my father had sent me to acquire – my university education. We met in a bus- I know it should be the last place to meet a lover – enroute the village market which they called Ahia-ukwu. That was where we began our journey of romance and the longevity had been indeed overwhelming to say the very least.
I went into my room and dropped my life’s work on the mattress which lay on the other side of the room. The carpeted floor bloomed forth softness and mild coldness as it was somewhat dampy under my feet. It made me recall the last time Kivi came to this place. She had arrived wearing a blue scarf on her brownish unmade hair and a short gown that had flowers which their names seemed mysterious to my very self. But that didn’t matter – I loved the shortness and admired the way the pad on her shoulders shrugged with each pace. She had watered my lips with hers and she had covered me with her naked body – all these things I missed of present.
The neighbors outside were still not back and the available light in the room made my eyes weary and blurry as I strained to see through the half empty room. I looked around – my only reasonable belongings were the mattress, the VCR player which I had smuggled from my father’s sitting room and the stationary fan – it never blew and the cassette player never played – as there was zero power supply at the time. The year was 1997 and the then National Electricity Power Authority had embarked on a very lengthy and abrupt strike – without prior notice to its consumers – to our very natural dismay.
I made for the cupboard on which stood the ‘Npanaka’ which I remembered still had some oil left in it. Goodness gracious! exploded from my mouth as I shook it and felt the remaining oil still there. I had purchased it on my way home during my journey back from another village down the valley that served the crossroad leading to Amaoji and Amaukwe twin villages. I was at the spot when white and black construction men came in their yellow machines and destroyed the erosion menacing the road, pouring black stones on it and steaming oil (in fact half the entire village was present that very week; no one missed an episode) as we young ones aspired to grave our names on the side of the road when they had concluded. I had bought it as soon as I heard the progression of the imminent strike which we all knew was going to be fruitless without cease. I purchased it for nothing more than a few coins at Ahia ukwu market. I remember the old woman who was selling lanterns and stoves and other cooking equipment in her little kiosk instructing me on how the little thing worked.
“Open the lid carefully,” she had said “then pour this oil into it and grease this thread up and down so that it will easily ignite. It is just as easy as peeling egusi,” she had told me that very evening. I paid her five naira in silver coins and walked out caressing it with my hands and saying the country wouldn’t kill us all. That was how I did it when I returned home to hear that the strike was still going to linger till infinity.
I lit it with a match and positioned it methodically so that it ignited without much fuss. It served me ostensibly pretty well. I stared once more at my watch – that very costly piece or so I thought which had been gifted to me by the debate club in my university days. Those good jolly days. I smiled, remembering my vibrant days of service. I apparently checked the time- not with reason but as a very marked habit of mine. It was 7:00pm and to my dismay my love still remained unavailable to my reach. Was she waiting for me to travel all the way to see her at her place- to see her broad chested father at the wooden gate of their wide compound at Amaimo. I couldn’t bear the sight of the man and his glittering machete and those vehement questions he threw to me whenever I drove my father’s white horse to see Kivi. I disliked the man and he too hated my guts. I had visited way too plenty – often during several weekends when I felt unimportant, yet she never ceased her frivolous expectancy of my ‘ never to arrive visits’.
One particular Saturday, I rode the white Horse in style through the primary school where I had schooled to Umuwara to greet my people then finally at Amaimo. Spectators had watched me, these things were still undoubtedly very unpopular at the time and this particular bicycle was pale white as my father had purchased it from an old relative in Ministry of Transportation. On reaching the place, I had rung the stainless steel bell on the right side of the bicycle head – it throbbed out chimes of soft rings. Kivi had come out in haste as she had expected me that day. She came and sat on my laps admiring the bicycle and admiring me to my amusement – not that I wasn’t handsome as an African man should be but she surprised me too many times the way she glanced at me with her head askew and her eyes punctuating the softness of the words she said to me outside her father’s gate. I dared not enter for fright of the man and his machete. I remember the other young men passing by the gaiety entrance and flabby gate of sincere affection. Their eyes bore envy and my shoulders rose above my head like the agama lizard who fell from the tree top amidst the eyes of his foes and thundered his red head on the surface of the soil in approval of his morale.
I had prepared myself a pot of white rice and tomato sauce earlier in the morning and that was what I dished out at extreme extravagance. I ate silently in my single room shimmering from the faint flames of the Npanaka. The little ornaments on the body of the container were the very best of decoration I had witnessed in all the collection of Npanaka in that old lady’s shop that day. The thread was precisely and meticulously fitted at the middle so that it burned with slow burning flame the wicks.
There was something vague and compromisingly vexing about the place I resided. It was ‘ face me I face you’, they called it. In expectancy of the evening, Mrs. Jovelyn, an ordinary primary school teacher at Olokoro Central School not too far away from here would return with her flock of hungry soldiers and the shouting and ridicule will commence and listening to the imminent contemptuous complains she had reserved for the evening – as she usually performed each evening, she would tender flat on their backs all her children’s crimes at school and the caning and yelling will commence. She had six kids at the time and her belly was bulging of by day to expose another offspring which no one knew from where the seed came from as she was a single parent. I desperately knew I couldn’t at the least bear the chatter and the little hysteria which was to be ushered once she and the other neighbors returned, so I surmounted my little mattress in haste and shut my eyes in dear crave for rest and deep slumber.
The following intriguing morning sprang me up into action as multiple recollective voices echoed from the yard outside and I thought someone had kicked the bucket overnight and my thoughts were very correct. Normally, at this time of the premature day, I dared not clamber down my mattress without skimming through the multiple paged novel of Chinua Achebe. This appetizing piece was titled ‘Things Fall Apart’ and I loved the way he led me page by page. At the time, I was still in doubt if Ikemefuna was adopted by the great warrior Okonkwo and I turned out to have thought of it falsely. The intense noise pitched on to a decibel which for once couldn’t be denied with bail of my presence. I reached for the door knob and it swung open with wooden creaky sounds. What my eyes met greeted my pupils with peppery stings of accumulating tears which I sucked in anyway and at the moment, momentarily paralyzed my entire self for a minute or two. At the middle of our yard, a lifeless body lay on a brownish raffia mat encircled by a heartbroken and devastated Mrs. Jovelyn and her wailers to match the impending inauspicious morning for all occupants. Death had stolen her last child and was to compensate her with the seed in her protruding belly. That was what Nkanu who owned a communal bus murmured to any ear that cared to listen. I turned to him and saw his head shake in detest and in sympathy. You would think he was the father of the dead boy.
“What killed this fine boy?” asked Mama Chinedu from my side as I walked down the door step.
“Iba,” replied Nkanu swinging his head once more as if the clarity of the message depended on it.
“Sorry,” she said, “but Nkanu, this iba wahala has gone out of hand. It is killing us slowly.”
“That is it,” nodded the man.
“Didn’t she feed him dogoyaro?” she asked retaining her sympathetic gestures.
“She did, but you cannot compare it to oyibo malaria medicine,” she urged, “it is just leaf with little medicine.” She said also that it was true, wringing the tight ends of her lappa and wiping away the tear on her painted face like a dazzling fire embarking in fury, the tear on her cheek. More people came; women with their arms folding their breasts and men with their hands locked in their pockets. They just uttered no word at all but joined in the standing ovation of a lost victim of malaria.
The kid’s body stretched out so his dead legs coincided with the porch of their threshold. The other women consoled the tears on her face and gesticulated to profound numbness, her doomed ordeals. She went on and on screaming, iba it will not be well for you, iba may you never know peace, iba you are wicked, iba you are this and you are that. The tremors waylaid the palpitated intense pounds of her heart, limbs up to her torso and her head shook and trembled to the openness of our pleading eyes as she snuggled between the body and her league of Wailers withdrew her from it saying it was an abomination.
“The dead is dead,” said someone who I knew not.
“The dead do not know pain and regret,” joined in another wailer. Then they began chorusing a poem I’ve never heard recited whenever someone little passed.
“Death oh death, death oh death, the tide is in your favour and we are in your enigmatic path. Death oh death, you have won and lost. Death and his friends want to swallow us into the sinking sand but you have taken the little and the poor. Death oh death may you never see peace. You think you are strong but the Almighty Chineke will continue to watch us”
They sang it. I wish I could paint the perfect picture their faces carried but nonetheless, they chorused it aloud and danced around the woman and her dead seed as tears drained from their eyes and from their nose. I would love to convey that Tears flowed from their bodies as we all stood and watched.
Jovelyn never failed to mention to our very profound dismay that iba had snatched her husband years before and now had spiced her life with another theft. She rolled on the bare earth refusing to be comforted by nobody; not even Mary Slessor in all her glamour and charity could console her because malaria had done the unspeakable, she said in the local language. Her face was distorted by tears and her hair masked her oily face and her jagged teeth bit her lips and chewed the ever flowing tears on her cheeks.
Lest you get blown away by what transpired that very inauspicious morning, iba is the local name used as referral to malaria. All through the ten villages of Umuja, presumably, healthy adults and children were accustomed to the deadly killer disease and the then ministry of health had loathed the funds meant for combating it. Amidst the entire intoxicating scenery of pain and loss, I still spared time in reminiscence of Kivi’s unnatural behavior towards me of now. Her wonderful face dove right into my mind as I tried to shed it away like smoke entering my eyes from a cluster of burning tinder, like a reddened charcoal disintegrating into dust carried by the unsteady wind in to the eyes of blind men. My thoughts were swayed back to recently when someone who I couldn’t pinpoint mentioned loudly that the body should be taken to be buried.
I wished to go over and comfort her and tell her that the boy had fled this crazy world and he’d journeyed to a better land but what proof could I tender. After all, the dead are dead. I had instinctively accessed the bitter scene, I went over, trippy, but only to donate my sincere condolence to the poor boy’s mother. There was a time I had been indoors with someone other than Kivi. I remember the boy running up to my door and beat rapidly on it to announce to my discretion that she was nearby the area. I smiled and nodded completely and ‘dashed’ him Two naira in coins for that splendid information which at the time was priceless for I was with my sister’s friend.
I never for once blamed the mother for the death of her son, I never blamed the neighbors who seemed to care plenty for Jovelyn, I never cursed iba – the worst of all ailment which at the time was drastic and plunged us towards occasional loss of our loved ones, I didn’t parade myself in one heartbeat to mention that it had eaten way too deep into our systems as it was well noticed at the time that iba was plaguing the horns of Africa since pre-colonial days – instead I pushed with plenty effort, my blames, to the corrupt government and the commissioners and the greedy chairmen of our wards for hijacking funds for the malaria eradication scheme.
Few days after, when I had just returned home from one of my numerous journeys, one particular morning, an urgent knock had responded at my door. I had had the feeling of a visitor that morning and I was right. Kivichukwu! I had immediately thought and I smiled adjusting my boxers. I still hadn’t seen her till now, nonetheless.
“Who is it?” I asked aloud as I reached the door and wiped the sleep off my eyes.
“It’s me Dede,” replied a somewhat passive familiar voice. I swung it wide open and beheld Chibueze, my little brother who had just returned from boarding school standing rigid on my door wearing a skintight khaki trouser and a native shirt. He greeted me good morning as our hands met.
“What is it?” I asked I as withdrew my hand, not in haste, but with a feeling of impending doom.
“Papa has caught the fever, they are saying it is iba.”
“Who said so?”
“Uncle Chime did,” he said frowning and looking up at me, “he used that thing that doctors use.” I understood and I nodded, saluting the Earth beneath my feet. I went into the room and returned all dressed up and he led the way to our father’s house.
On reaching my father’s compound, I went straight to his thatched shed were I met him lying on a raffia mat and covered in my mother’s lappa. He did not see me from the angle he occupied but he felt the presence of an alien so he turned to see me and asked when I came.
“Just now,” I replied tearing my eyes away from him.
“They are saying it is iba, Chima,” he said to me holding his head, “I have sent your mother to go fetch ‘dogoyaro’ from the bush. She would be home in no plenty time,” he concluded resting his pounding head on the pillow.
I pitied the old man. Even as I sat there, he had a bewildering look on his face as if he was becoming cynical and losing faith in the incoming local medicine. You could see the malaria manhandling a fraction of his body. He even said it was ‘better better iba’. He soon fell into a long snooze, sweating profusely all over his body as though he was been drenched in a well of water. I looked at him and I lay back on the thatched chair which had a back rest and let my thoughts carry me into town.
The previous week, I too had gone to Umuahia town in search of work. As early 8:00am, I was in a communal transport scheme which had been donated by a chairmanship candidate who had aspirations to run for office but had failed that very period to a very powerful opponent. It was cruised by my neighbor Nkanu. He asked after my father and I said he was well when I left him, nonetheless, I hadn’t seen him in days but I knew until now that he was well. No more important conversations lit between us as he rode into town – just the usual talk about the weather and about the past elections. He spared me my transport fare and I replied a heavy thank you to him.
I stood under the flyover bridging Orlu Street and Lagos Street and wondered where to begin. I had been to Orlu Street the day before and all those gate men would have gotten accustomed to my ‘small pikin’ face. That was what they called me the last day I came. There was this gateman they called inspector, he demanded
N10 from me before I could enter to see his biggest oga kpatakpata. I gave him a vague stare and asked him plainly if my father owned a money factory. He shoved me out but I think I got him badly.
The landscape was so leveled only tilting a little here and there and the people; rowdy and business booming from each thin street to another. There were also vendors selling and consumers purchasing their markets. I stared at Lagos Street realizing nothing captivating resides there as I made directly for a news vendor stand where old men gathered and argued the news. An elderly man having beards as white as old age stood in the middle of the little crowd directly opposite a family owned enterprise of a well renowned politician. He stuttered, bulging his fat belly to his listeners. I overheard his loud voice cursing an image in chieftain attire and saying he stole the state’s money. He said the man was a criminal and never failed to add he loathed funds meant to combat various diseases in the villages from which our children die from. He was a preacher in the streets preparing his followers for another aftermath of drought.
My father’s cough plunged me back into reality when he turned to my mother’s footsteps approaching from the compound entrance. Her hands carried the lengthy dogoyaro leaves which she prepared immediately behind the kitchen. I sat and waited for it to conform as mama stirred it in the steaming water. My father’s body shook and quivered to iba which he tried to hold. He held himself with both his arms as though his flesh was going to escape him, as though his life depended on it. He squeezed it, wringing both fingers to his sides as the breeze blew in from a nearby stream.
“Chima!” my mother called out. I went to the back and helped carry the hot thing in a large Basin to my father’s shed. My mother went in and got a large lappa while I brought a kitchen stool. “Dim! Dim!” she called her husband who had just released his grasp on himself. “come and sit on this chair, biko.”
He pushed himself up backing us with both hands clasping the mat, then he struggled to get up with my aid.
“Slowly,” she warned me, “slowly, don’t let him hit the ground”. His buttock sat down on the chair then she covered him with the lappa which she had just bought from a Fulani trader. She clouded him completely with the cloth then hid the basin of hot steaming medicine within. He covered him as if each steam cost a fortune. He coughed inside there then he coughed again and again. The hacking cough continued as he sipped the steams through his nostrils while I wondered how easy all this would have been if the modern medications were around our vicinity at the time.
He slept off. The soldier ants came to the compound and left while he still was asleep. The dizziness was on my face while it rested on his and I thought of that young blood who had died of iba right before my door. Nervousness was on my mother’s face too. She let me watch him sleep as though her test would fail.
Darkness loomed the way a mirage comes to the eyes and air seeped around us till nightfall snatched daylight from the evening from which we had waited for his prolonged recovery. The air rested on our bodies, the mosquitoes and the fireflies wrestled in the dead night drawing the darkness nearer to my father’s palms which he flung away, waking up to consciousness the way smoke from firewood bulges into huge flames.
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