–We are all born mad. Some remain so. (Samuel Beckett)
Have you ever taken a stroll, up and down the streets of the oil city? Take a cup of garri with you, sugar and all. If it’s your first time, take extra cubes. In the air is neglect, mind your business, and survival of the fittest. There are also those tiny particles that trigger my eye allergies, which –surprisingly- only I seem to see.
We arrived the city by bus, not the air-conditioned one. It’s those ones with fear-no-man-fear-Holy-Spirit drivers. The type that has watched James Bond movies one too many times, except they never paid attention. James Bond is white; he has sophisticated cars. The stained white buses, with broken windows, faulty doors, and moi moi tires don’t count.
My first impression: I’m going to die. I might have survived the one hundred and ten thousand potholes – I was counting- but there was no way I would survive here. Noted.
Every city has gold. No city has no rich man. You may be poor, but once you’ve found that gold, you’re ‘It’. You aff blow!
Exactly two years after believing we were cursed, and Churches could somehow magically turn your life into a testimony, my father stroke gold. Oil to be exact. The church had nothing to do with it. And some months after our breakthrough we had nothing to do with the church as well.
And so trips on Keke and learning the art of abusing drivers speeding and carelessly- but bravely- overtaking ‘your Keke’ ended. When I finally got the hang of the colorful language, insults! But even good things come to an end.
My father’s manifesto: Good roads, improved infrastructure, better healthcare services, blah blah blah! The usual list of Things I’m not going to do. It did not include her though. It never did. Not even after we had stroke ‘gold’ twice!
The tinted windows of my father’s car were designed to protect me from the outside world; angry civilians, beggars, poor folks etc. It didn’t however prevent the intense gaze I received from her every morning, every weekday as my father drove me to school. Black orbs looking into my soul, pricking every inch of my conscience.
Looking away was easier. Pretending it never happened was the way forward. She wasn’t the first one. She’s not the only one. I repeated these words over and over again in my head, so walking side by side with my bodyguard into school was a lighter me.
Life is an irony. There are two types of people: Normal people and them. We were the normal ones. Our brains functioned well, even the Dundis of the class like Efe were considered normal. Growing up, I was taught never to cross paths with them. If they were on the right side of the road, you walked left. This was a nationally accepted doctrine.
“Different worlds.” I was told. They were cursed, bewitched. They had committed some grave sin and were paying their debts. This certainly explained why a majority paraded naked; a most disturbing sight to witness in your childhood.
The ones here made this line of sanity even more confusing. Prior, I had propounded a theory: If you weren’t on the streets 24/7, didn’t have dirty dreads, dry dusty skin, were clothed properly, didn’t utter nonsense (with exception to insults to politicians) then you were normal.
It was scientifically and spiritually proven. That is until I set foot on this soil. It was a whole new brand of humanity.
They were ‘Them’ because their brains weren’t working. But how do you defend this when you see them looking left, right and left again before crossing the road. Surely, you require a brain to do this right?
These were the sort of things I saw. The line that society had drawn meticulously, was a blurred one here. That or either those tiny particles were really affecting my vision.
The indigenes, on the other hand, were immune to these particles. They knew exactly who to tell their kids to walk away from. Their kids knew exactly who to mock and make fun of. And the animals knew exactly who to tail behind. It was spectacular!
At times I suspected they had invisible glasses. Or my eyesight really was bad.
Unlike the others, she sat down very still. She did not move about the road screaming whatnot like the overzealous youth pastors, didn’t have large holes in her rags (clothing for them), never pursued anyone with a wooden stick in her hand. She simply stared. And stared. And stared. That, however, did not stop people from avoiding her like a plague or throwing their waste close to her (their eyesight never ceased to amaze me!)
This Thursday was just like every Thursday. Except it wasn’t. Musa, my personal chauffeur, who still doesn’t know his left from right -arriving anywhere is one of those overlooked miracles in my life- had forgotten today was a school day. Just one of his fine qualities.
I knew my way around town perfectly. Not bothering to find out if Musa had joined them- it was about time anyways- I leisurely strolled down the street, sightseeing.
I was unnoticed by the world, a casual observer. The art of hustling on full display in this small ever exciting city. The stench from the gutters competing with the radiation from the sugarcane girl- menstrual hygiene was a sin. I still hadn’t decoded the guttural exultation from the wheelbarrow pushers- poverty cry. It was fun, watching unbalanced women move swiftly on tiny legs, rebuke their out of school wards and abuse sightseeing customers, “See if u no one buy, commot for here ohh! U dey shine your eye as if you never see buns before. Nonsense!”
I halted in my tracks at the next image. There she was, in her usual glory. But her usual blank face had sachet water on, and her intense gaze was red with anger. I rushed closer and observed that it was tears and I instantly understood why.
A group of teenage boys was playing some sort of game. Apparently throwing sachet water at a madwoman was deemed bravery. Others thought so. No one spared a glance at her.
I was perplexed. She wasn’t meant to show emotions. Why wasn’t she like them? My father had assured me she was no longer with us. Why then did she show emotions? People like them didn’t cry.
Images ran through my mind at milliseconds. Was this what happened when you looked at their kind? Did other people in my situation face the same dilemma?
“What you don’t see won’t kill you,” He said.
My father’s advices were always short and straight to the point. Easy to remember too. I savoured the fact that he spared five seconds to give them-and most probably think them too. I wasn’t lucky when it came to questioning him about it though. A meeting with the Governor was paramount at this stage. The 30 minutes, No! One hour he used to dress and undress, compare and praise himself was a moment of silence and not even an urgent request from me was permitted, that is except I was quoting his workers who were quoting the Governor.
What you don’t see won’t kill you.
I saw. I had been seeing. I was going to die. This city was going to kill me after all. I secured the food with two rubber bands. He was out of town. No one would see me. No flashy cars and ambulance would whisk me away to where the rich ones of their kind stayed. My hoodie held ‘gold’ and just like my father, I would protect it with my life or lives of others in his case.
I looked left, right and left again in estate streets where everyone was indoors in their flaunting houses. I was becoming like them! Was it a blood thing?
I sensed a rainstorm about to come. I hurried my steps till I came to her spot, Madam Folake’s spot now spot of them. Problems have a way of renaming you. Like the son of Bartimaeus.
She was in the shadows, head rested on the knackered transformer. They blended perfectly.
It contrasted greatly with the gold buildings. Pieces of trash circled her. The gutter wasn’t deep. I halted. Her skin was a sickly khaki green.
There was a current storm going on. And it wasn’t the heavy downpour of water or the swirling acrid particles from the gutter or the rotating black orbs or my body repulsing hers. It was an internal storm, as my brain blocked my sight with images. Images I had long been taught to forget.
Without another thought, I dropped the food ungracefully and ran, looked away. Like always.
Then I heard it, “Folake!” I ran harder.
I wore earphones and shades each time I delivered ‘gold’ to her.
Things were back to normal. I felt normal. Musa never forgot which days were school days. I never had any reason to see her more than I could handle. It was a blessing yet I felt a certain hole in my heart. And nothing seemed to help. Music, listening in on my father’s very very important meetings with beer and friends, listening to my own friends talk about how they had taken secret sips of alcohol. Absolutely nothing made me feel better.
Times like this I felt very lonely. And threatened to go back to those days. The days when my friends would notice a slight change in my mood. Times when life was simpler and even…beautiful. Here I spoke through a glass, I could hear you, the world could hear me but no one felt me. My father used to say you came to this world alone but there’s no reason why you should live it alone.
I was making my usual trip to her spot when I spotted my father’s car approaching. In a frenzy I threw the food at her, spilling it also.
The repercussions of my actions, associating with them, treating her like us. My heart was exploding. My feet were about to bolt away, “Daughters shouldn’t be ashamed of their mothers.”
My feet grew roots. The flashbacks unblurred and suddenly I saw her, my mother. The woman my father claimed left us. The madwoman we weren’t willing to live with.
She smiled and blended with the speeding streak of the black machine.