I still remember the first time I met Kacha in secondary school. I was minding my own business, packing away my books at the end of one of my first days in school when this scrawny boy with protruberant eyes and a manic grin approached me.
“Hello! What’s your name?”
“Chukwudi”, I replied cautiously. “What’s yours?”
“My full name is Adeniyi Oluwadamilare Mongolia Oxygen Malomo. Most people call me Niyi. But since you are going to be my friend, I will let you call me a special name that I’ll decide on.”
I was taken aback. What kind of parents gave their children names like ‘Oxygen’ and ‘Mongolia’? And since when did this crazy guy decide that we were going to be friends?
But Kacha seemed either unaware of or undeterred by my hesitation. “OK – I’ve thought about it, and you can call me Kachakachiki.”
For some strange reason, I found this name so hilarious that I burst out laughing, and the ice was broken between us. When I recovered, I asked him why his parents had given him such strange names.
“Oh, those names aren’t from my parents. I gave them to myself”, he replied airily.
Now I was even more amazed. “Why would you give yourself names like that?”
“Oh, I was looking at an atlas a few years ago, and I came across this country called ‘Mongolia’. I liked the name so much I decided to make it one of my names. As for ‘Oxygen’, well, my science teacher told me that it’s very important – it gives life to living beings. So I thought that I would add that to my list of names too, since I want to be as important as oxygen.”
“So your parents don’t know about your names, then?”
Kacha shrugged. “They know… but I think they are used to my way of doing things, so they just pretend that I don’t have those names.”
I was intrigued. “What is your way of doing things?”
“Well…” He smiled, and made a nonchalant gesture. “I like to play around with things… for example, there was time when I wanted to find out whether it was possible to produce black hibiscus flowers by watering the plant with water that had been dyed green…”
And Kacha launched into a story of the various adventures and escapades that his insatiable curiosity had led him into. It was also the start of a firm friendship which lasted throughout our secondary school days, during which I shortened the longer ‘Kachakachiki’ to the name I was to use from then onwards.
As it turned out, I ended up being Kacha’s only real close friend. Most of our other classmates were divided into two overlapping groups. There were those who regarded him as a figure of fun, because he was always making the most outrageous statements. Once, he said that the existence of gold – which was a yellow shiny metal – and copper – which was a red shiny metal – meant that there was definitely a blue shiny metal, and he was going to work on discovering it. On another occasion, he said that he had perfected a method of sleeping in class while fooling teachers and everyone else that he was wide awake.
Even more outrageous were the things that Kacha did to back up his more outlandish statements. For example, he once came to class holding a tin and announced that from that day on, he was going to give up eating regular food. Instead, his diet would consist solely of spiders, since in his view, they were much healthier. To demonstrate this, he opened the tin, turned it upside down and shook out a large number of dead spiders, which he then proceeded to eat – much to the disgust of everyone.
Needless to say, these antics rapidly earned him names like ‘Craze-man’, ‘Kolo-man’, or simply (and most popular of all) ‘Kolo’. As his friend, I was always puzzled and irritated at why he would continue to engage in such behaviour. Didn’t he mind being ridiculed, I asked?
“Oh, I don’t mind at all”, he replied with his trademark grin. “If it makes them happy to ridicule me, let them do so. As long as I’m achieving what I want, why should I care?”
“But you aren’t achieving what you want! You always start with a new idea or project, and then a few days into it, it fizzles out when you think of something new!”
“Well, why should I continue pursuing an idea if I have an even better idea? At least I have set the ball in motion for anyone who is interested in pursuing the idea. Better for me to free my intelligence to pursue more important matters.”
Oh yes – make no mistake about it, Kacha was intelligent – very, very intelligent. In fact, I would say that he was too intelligent for his own good. This is why there were those of our classmates that detested him for what they saw as his arrogance. He would proclaim that lessons were a waste of time for him, because he knew everything that the teacher was teaching. (That was why, he said, he had perfected his sleeping-while-awake technique.) He was also not shy of demonstrating his extensive knowledge. I recall an occasion where he once stood up and, apropos of nothing, started recounting the history of the Songhai empire until he was shouted down by angry classmates.
And it wasn’t just the students who viewed him in this way. The teachers feared and hated him even more – there was nothing more they dreaded than have this young upstart embarrass them by interrupting their lesson to correct an inaccurate statement that they had made. They would regularly punish him for what they regarded as his impudence, but this had no effect on his behaviour – he maintained that it wasn’t fair for students to be misled by wrong information.
The thing was, despite how the teachers and students felt, I don’t think he was doing this out of arrogance or malice. I think that he simply believed that if something was wrong, the right thing to do was to correct it. In fact, he would often do this with a smile on his face, as if he had done the world a great favour. Unfortunately, he seemed to be unaware of the social norms on how you were supposed to go about doing this, and this meant that people ended up with the wrong impression. Of course, I tried to explain this to him, but it all seemed to go over his head.
“So… you are telling me that people don’t like being told the truth?” he said, puzzled.
“Well… it’s not that they don’t like being told, but the way you tell them matters a lot.”
“So if a teacher is misleading students with wrong information. what should I do?”
I paused. “Well, you can meet the teacher after the lesson and point out to him that he was wrong.”
“But what good is that if he doesn’t tell the students that he is wrong?”, Kacha persisted.
“OK… erm, you can tell the students that the teacher is wrong, and this is the right answer.”
“It would take too long to go from student to student telling them the right thing. It’s better to announce it when everyone is present and I can prove the teacher wrong!” he said, grinning triumphantly.
In response, I rolled my eyes in despair.
Kacha’s reputation in the school made things a bit awkward for me. I was often placed in positions where I had to defend some of his more outrageous actions. Many of my classmates couldn’t understand what I saw in ‘that craze-man’, and after a few attempts to explain, I stopped trying. I think that they were never going to share my fascination for his childlike curiosity and his piercing intelligence. So they would never get close enough to him to see the very many occasions when he was also brutally honest with himself – when he would admit when he was wrong, and when he would show a willingness to listen to other ideas.
But Kacha’s intelligence was also double-edged. It may have made people hate him when he showed he knew more than them – but it also made him highly sought after for solving homework problems. The funny thing about it was that it was those students who villified him the most who then often approached him for help. Some of them were ashamed of their hypocrisy, so they usually approached him through me – but others saw no contradiction in asking for help from someone who, not so long ago they had just insulted. Kacha didn’t seem to mind, however – he always relished the idea of explaining something that someone didn’t understand.
Anyway, our days at secondary school passed soon enough, and it was time to sit our external exams to go to university. Kacha had already decided what course he wanted to study.
“Philosophy?” I exclaimed. “What’s the point of that?”
Kacha wagged his finger in admonition. “Don’t be so dismissive. A philosopher’s role is very important. He is the source of the solutions to all the problems that plague the society he lives in. I believe that with my superior intelligence, I can apply my knowledge of philosophy to solve the many problems that we have today.”
“You must be dreaming”, I said scornfully. “Why should anyone listen to you when they think they are the ones with solutions to the problems?”
“Because they don’t have the solutions – I do!”
I sighed. “Kacha, please don’t waste your talent on people who won’t appreciate you. I honestly think you should do something that will enable you to make lots of money. Go into computing – lots of banks would be happy to employ someone like you. But please, don’t assume that the world sees you the way you see yourself.”
Kacha responded in a rare fit of annoyance. “Chukwudi, I can’t believe you’re being so selfish!” he shouted. “It is because of this selfish attitude that Nigeria is upside down today. Anyway, if you can’t encourage me in what I want to do, it’s better not to say anything!”
I bristled defensively. ” When someone tries to tell you what is good for you, you think you know it all. OK, go and do philosophy! See if I care!” We exchanged quite a few heated and cruel words before I turned and walked away in anger before he could say anything else.
After that argument, things were never quite the same between us again. We would pass each other in the corridor and politely say hello, but the confidences dried up between us. Looking back, I think that we were both too proud to make the first move to make up. But whatever the reason, it meant that I had no idea which university he had applied to go to – so when I left secondary school, I lost contact with him for the next ten years.
But in that period, I never stopped regretting that I had allowed the friendship to die, and I always wondered what had become of my friend. Anytime I came across an ex-student of our school, I would ask whether he had heard any news of Kacha. The stories I heard circulating were as bizarre as the boy’s behaviour had been at secondary school. Some people said that he had decided to learn the language of the weaver bird; the idea was that he would speak to these birds and convince them not to devour grain that was meant for harvest. Other people said that he had left the country for the United Kingdom, but rather than take a plane, he had decided to paddle there in a canoe outfitted with special equipment to sustain him on the voyage. One thing was certain – Kacha seemed to have disappeared from circulation, and I had no sure way of knowing what had happened to him.