We had always known he wasn’t real and wasn’t going to last. He was a busybody who talked too much and tried to ingratiate himself with everybody that mattered in the church—pastors, deacons, deaconesses, elders, music leaders, etc. He befriended them, showered them with cheap insincere praise, and made sure he impressed everyone with his singing, dancing, prayers and banal prophecies. When we heard he had been disgraced out of the church and sent packing , we were not, in the least, surprised; in fact, what surprised—nay, appalled—us was that it took that long for the senior pastor to be convinced that the self-style Prophet Ibe was a religious fraud, a thief, a drunk and a sex pervert.
You didn’t need a prophet to discern he was such a reprobate—you needed only a little common sense and the ability to read people. That’s all! I wrote him off when I saw how intimately he was relating with almost all the leaders of the church and a few members within two days of his joining the church. I knew he was trying hard to impress and to gain the confidence of everyone. No wonder it took the church over a year to realize the monster in Prophet Ibe.
Ibe was small of stature—measuring no more than five feet in height—and wiry. His complexion was the unhealthy yellow of stale palm oil forgotten in an old bottle. He wore a punk hairstyle, like a schoolboy’s; it was dyed bluish-black. His face was long, ending in sharp chin bordered by strong prominent jaws. His eyes were the one thing that wouldn’t escape the notice of an observant person: they were small, sharp, and closely set, and over each of them hung, like rain clouds, a thick, shaggy eyebrow.
Yes, he defrauded unsuspecting members of the church; he extorted persons who came to see the Senior Pastor for prayers; he took home any valuable thing forgotten in the church by careless members of the congregation and brazenly denied having ever set eyes on them. Yes, he stole from the offerings and tithe boxes, visited whorehouses, drank to stupor and lied shamelessly, but none of these was the reason he was chased away. His nemesis was a half-wit, a fourteen-year old girl called Rose.
That fateful day, I had gone to the school, where I marked time as a teacher, earlier than usual. The school was situated in the church premises and run by the Senior Pastor, a kindly, trusting family man from Kogi State. At the entrance to the school block, that morning, was an excited group of about six girls between the ages of ten and thirteen. They were chattering excitedly amongst themselves as I approached, but broke up and dispersed as soon as they sighted me.
“What’s chasing you?” I demanded, my voice as stern as I could make it sound. None of them responded, instead they hurried out of they range of my cane.
“Faith, come here.” I said, indicating the oldest of the group. Faith was a garrulous J.S.S. 2 student. She walked up to me timidly, shaking like a sick old woman. I tried to calm her by speaking kindly to her.
“What were you, girls, doing at the entrance instead of sweeping your classrooms or going to the Devotion Hall?”
“Is it not Sir Ibe?” she mumbled, accusingly, twirling a button on her dress and starring at her small black shoes.
“Yes? What about him?”
“We were going to our class and he now come and porshoo us—”
“Pursue,” I corrected.
“Yes, porshoo us. Dat we should not pass de corridor again.”
“Why did he say that?” I asked, absolutely certain that they’d been up to some mischief.
“Because,” piped Ine, a Primary Five pupil with a small body and a big mouth, “he is teaching Rose sometin’!” And she giggled and turned to the others who were hovering around. They joined in her laughter and wandered closer to Faith and I. I wondered at the cause of their amusement and became suspicious.
“Don’t you know dat imbecile in Norsery Tree?” It was Ine again, and this time she chortled exaggeratedly and collapsed into the waiting arms of a colleague.
“The tall, dark girl from Calabar?” I enquired. The girls chorused a “yes” and, apart from Faith, burst into another fit of laughter.
I left them and strode briskly into the building, making it a point look into the classroom, in front of which the girls had been forbidden to walk. I heard no audible sign of any pedagogic activity going on in the said classroom until when I was only inches away from the door. Then I heard the treble voice of the prophet in the middle of explaining some difficult concept to a an obviously bemused teenager who could not say her name and whom everybody knew was being retained in the school only because of the extra revenue her tuition brought the school.
In that fleeting moment I went passed the door, I glimpsed the benevolent master pointing at the whiteboard and asking a very uncomfortable Rose, whose facial expression seemed to me like one suffering from a terrible toothache, to repeat something after him.
When he saw me, he broke into an uneasy smile and hailed me in his customary manner:
My first name was Tony.
“Good morning, Mr. Ibe,” I replied, not stopping for a moment. I had always called him Mr. Ibe, unlike everybody else in the school who addressed him as Prophet. I couldn’t call him that—and never would. Not ever since he told me, in a fit of drunken stupor, that he was going to introduce me to a place called Sweet Tomtom and I would never be the same again. I later found out—strangely–from the J.S.S. 2 students–that Sweet Tomtom was a brothel. All the time we had worked together as co-teachers and worshipers in the same church, the man had never given me reason to feel that he resented or minded my choice of appellation. On the contrary, he always greeted me with warm affection and treated me with utmost respect, even shaking my hand with both his two hands clasped around them—a thing that both humbled and baffled me. He was in his early forties and, at least, ten years older than I.
I didn’t give the incident with the girls and Mr. Ibe any more thought until later that afternoon, say, around 1 p.m. I was teaching in one of the classes when I was interrupted by two female teachers from the primary section. They stood in the doorway to the classroom, with puckered lips and closely knit eyebrows; they looked very serious. Behind the pair was the ungainly figure of a tear-faced Rose, lurking fearfully, it appeared.
“Excuse me, Uncle,” said the shorter of the two ladies, “we’re trying to find out sometin’.” Then she moved aside and, as if on cue, the other teacher gave Rose a gentle shove forward. Rose doddered a couple of paces and stopped, sniffing and blinking her little black eyes at me.
“Is he de one?” demanded the first teacher, pointing a finger at me.
“No,” the girl sobbed in a throaty liquid voice, blinking uncontrollably.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” her voice had taken on a high-pitched wobble.
“Tank you, Uncle,” the interrogator pouted, taking hold of Rose’s right arm.” Oya! Let’s go to de next class.” Rose wiped her eyes with the back of her left hand, while sniffing all the time, and let herself be dragged along like a dog on a leash.
“What’s going on,” said I, rather peevishly. But either the ladies didn’t hear me or chose not to respond; they matched on without so much as looking back.
There was a flurry of activity as the class broke up into little clusters of students, murmuring excitedly amongst themselves. I heard whispers like “I told you!”, “It’s Sah Ibe!”, “Dat man na bad man!” It was obvious they knew something I didn’t know.
“Hush!” I exclaimed, feigning much anger at the din they were making. “What has Sir Ibe done?”
The class was quiet. They all just stared stupidly at me as if I had not asked any question. Faith was in the class and I spotted her stooping close to a seat-mate, whispering into the girl’s ear.
“Faith, stand up!” She obeyed, slowly rising to her feet.
“What’s the talk about Sir Ibe?” I asked again, moving closer and stopping in front of her desk.
“I don’t know, Sah,” she returned, her eyes riveted at my feet.
“So what were you telling Hope?”
“Notin,” she said, twisting her fingers first this way and then the other way. Exasperatedly, I raised my cane to strike it on the desk; she mistook my intention and cowered behind a fat bulgy-eyed boy named Emmanuel.
“I know, Sah,” beamed Emmanuel, shooting up a finger and, simultaneously, springing to his feet.
“Dey say dat ehn…” he began, his gaze jumping from one of his classmates to another. “Dey said dat Sah Ibe was …was…In fact, Sah I don’t know how to say it—”
“You don’t know how to say what?” I barely restrained myself from hitting the mischievous little loud-mouth.
“It’s…it’s too heavy to talk for mout, Sah,” grinned the boy, his eyes sparkling. He sat down with a gesture of finality, with some of the boys reaching out their hands and giving his head a complimentary pat or rub, as if Emmanuel had just achieved a rare feat of oratory.
I look around with frustration written all over me, wondering how long I was going to put up with such idiotic behaviour from some of the children. I was about to resume my lesson when I heard some commotion coming from the next class—Mr. Ibe’s class. I went to investigate. A few of the students, quite naturally, tip-toed after me.