The years passed, and I finished my university course in civil engineering. I soon got a job in a large construction company which sent me all over the country to supervise various building projects. One day, I was on my way in a taxi to the site of a project I was supervising in Kaduna, when I passed a junction where an unkempt man in tattered clothes appeared to be directing traffic. He seemed to be doing a very efficient job – he didn’t seem encumbered in any way by the large cooking pot on his head. I looked at him idly… and then my face froze in recognition. I shouted to the taxi driver to stop, threw him a clutch of notes and bolted out of the taxi towards the man.
“Kacha! Kacha!! I shouted, running towards the man. He looked much, much older than I expected him to be, but he was still scrawny, and he still had the same old grin. “Kacha… it’s me, Chukwudi!” The man stopped for one second, then ran towards me and we embraced tightly.
I stepped back and regarded him. His clothes were tattered, but they were clean. His hair was unkempt, but there was only a faint trace of body odour. But I was greatly concerned. “Kacha… what are you doing here? Why are you doing this job?”
Kacha grinned at me. “Chukwudi, it’s good to see you again. But what else should I be doing? Come, let’s take a break, and we can catch up.”
He led me to nearby bukateria where everyone seemed very happy to see him. The bukateria owner smiled and asked him if he wanted his regular meal
“Absolutely, Mama Laraba”, he said. “And please serve my very good friend here a meal too.”
Mama Laraba smiled again and walked away to prepare the meals. “How much do I have to pay?” I asked, assuming that this is what he had intended.
“Pay? Don’t be silly, my friend. Everything is on the house. How can I expect you to pay for the meal when I haven’t seen you in so many years? Nonsense!”
Over the meal, we exchanged information about what had happened to each other in the years since we last saw each other. I recounted the rather boring story of how I had completed my degree in civil engineering and about how I was now working as a supervising engineer on various projects up and down the country, while he punctuated my account with exclamations of “Great!” and “Fantastic!”
“So, what about you?” I asked, when I was done. “You set out to be the philosopher that would change Nigeria – how come you’re now directing traffic in Kaduna?”
“Ah”, he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I wanted to go to university at first, but then I realised that I probably wouldn’t learn much from there. It would just be like secondary school, except that the lecturers would be even less willing to admit they were wrong. So I decided after finishing my exams to teach myself philosophy instead. After all, all I needed were some good books.
“So I stayed at home, reading and expostulating theory after theory. After a while, my parents got fed up of me taking up space and ordered me to go out and look for a job if I wasn’t going to go to university. Well – it was their house, so I didn’t blame them for telling me what they wanted of me – but I knew that I could never be happy working for someone who knew much less than I did. So I left home with my bag of books and took my philosophising on the road.
“I wandered up and down the country, hitching lifts, begging for food and living from hand to mouth. In the middle of this, I realised that people thought that I was mad, because I didn’t have the same aspirations as them – to get a good job, settle down and get married, build a big house and buy a car. But I felt as free as a bird – I didn’t have any concerns at all. Most people would be worried about where their next meal was coming from, but I needed so little to keep me happy that I never worried about this – and strangely enough, I always seemed to get food when I asked politely for it.
“So I thought – if this is what comes of people thinking that I am mad, then perhaps I really should pretend to be mad so that I can enjoy the full benefits. And Chukwudi, I assure you that there really are benefits! I can do whatever I want and wear whatever I like without people looking down on me – they say I am mad, so what do they expect? When I appear polite and do something useful for people, to most people that’s always a pleasant surprise, given the way people treat mad people in Nigeria. So this means that they are always very willing to accommodate me and do me little favours. The bukateria owner always gives me food because she knows that I direct traffic and she feels sorry for me – plus I sometimes help her out when I have the time. So I’m very happy with my life.”
I was flabbergasted at this revelation. “If you’re so helpful and polite, don’t you think that people will realise you’re normal?”
Kacha laughed. “Well, I still have to remind them that I’m mad by doing the occasional mad but harmless thing, like this…” and he tapped the cooking pot on his head.
I shook my head in sadness. “Kacha… I don’t understand. You had a brilliant mind. Even now, you still have a brilliant mind. Remember how you used to go on about not being selfish? Don’t you think that by allowing your brilliant mind to waste away doing what you’re doing, you are being very, very selfish?”
He smiled sadly in return. “I learnt the hard way what you were trying to tell me back then then in secondary school. I may have been intelligent academically, but I was a stark illiterate in the ways of men. It took repeated rejection before I could open my eyes to the fact that despite what I thought about myself, I was nothing – absolutely nothing to other people. So it didn’t matter what ideas I had about fixing the world’s problems… nobody was going to listen to me anyway.
“And when I realised this, I also realised that what really did matter to me was seeking my own happiness – not putting it behind the demands of other people. This is the path I chose to get there – I recognise that not everyone would have chosen it, but it’s what has worked for me.”
I bit back the frustration in my voice. “Kacha, don’t sell yourself short just because you’ve realised the truth about people. I’m pretty high up in my organisation – I can talk to someone about getting you a good job where I work.”
Kacha stared at me for a long time. Then he spoke gently. “Chukwudi, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I honestly am happy with my chosen life. I’m very happy to see you again, so I would be very sorry if we had to part on bitter terms like we did ten years ago. So please – accept that our lives have taken different directions and be happy for me too.”
I bowed my head for a while. Then I sighed and said, “At least let me give you my card in case you ever change your mind.”
“That’s no problem”, he replied smiling. He took the card, we talked some more, and then I announced that I had to be going, as I was late for work already. We stood up and embraced each other again, then I walked out into the morning sunshine, hoping that I would hear from Kacha soon. I didn’t look back, so I didn’t see as my friend, the ‘madman’, gently let go of the card I had handed him. I didn’t see as it was carried along by the wind, further and further away…