The world teeters on the brink of destruction; the cause? One harmless seed from a simple tree. A plain tree; one that you would probably walk past without a second glance, nothing spectacular, but great power sometimes lie in the plainest things.
I see the orange mushroom of flame and dust that is the explosion, as I am knocked off my feet by its force. The heat wave hits my face, singing my brows. I know it is over; even if I run, the damage has been done, thanks to the short wave radiation from the bomb that would have caused gross mutations. We are all dead people; it is only a matter of time.
All because of a seed.
From a plain tree.
And lest I forget… Greed.
It all started in a little town, in Ogun state. Imeko.
I noticed the tree as I walked down to the lecture theater on a cold foggy morning with a group of friends. A normal tree; one I would have walked past on a normal day, as I had done for the past three years, but what stopped me were the people picking the seeds that had fallen from the tree, when the pods split open.
I was fascinated; it was a flat brownish pod with a hairy exterior, the seed was also encased in an outer brown shell. I must confess, I was quite a bit of a nature nut, sunrise, sunsets, trees, grasses and discovery of medicinal plants were my thing.
“Temi,” one of my friends shouted.
“Babe. How you go dey just stand, dey look tree.”
They all laughed and I joined them.
“No mind me Jare.”
We walked on to the lecture theater. On the notice board outside the lecture theater, a paper was pasted stating the supervisors. I, along with four other students were to be supervised by Mrs Alabi, a small woman who wore round spectacles. When we were through with lectures for the day, Dami, one of my group mates, came to meet me.
“Mrs Alabi, would like to see us.”
“I’m tired, so tired, can’t we meet another day.”
“Pele, I’m sure it won’t take long.”
“Are the others aware?”
“Yea, I told John and Ada already.”
“Okay, I’d join you guys soon.”
I shut down my laptop, closed the lid, removed my charger from the switch and put it in my laptop bag. I slung the bag over my shoulders and walked towards her office.
The others sat huddled, opposite her, while she looked at something on her laptop. Pipettes, test tubes, volumetric flasks and different chemicals in jars of various shapes and sizes were arranged haphazardly on shelfs that leaned against the four walls of the room that was her office. There were some leaves drying on a plastic mat placed on the floor.
“Ah, Temi, Glad you could join us.”
I nodded my head at her politely and slipped into an empty chair beside Dami.
“Yes, well as you know, I’ve been selected to supervise your undergraduate project,” she started, adjusting her spectacles.
“I encourage creativity in students and would therefore give you a period of one week to come up with what you want to work on. After the elapsed time, if you haven’t come up with anything, then, I would nudge you in the direction of potential projects.”
She coughed. I was amused by her use of the words “elapsed.” and “nudge.”. It seemed so unnecessary, her use of those words. We were just students after all, not the entire scientific community.
“So do you have anything to say…,” she asked.
We all shook our heads.
“Okay, that would be all.”
I stood up, reached for the door and walked out. The seed came to mind, but it was dark and people thought me weird enough without seeing me hanging around a tree at night. No, thank you very much. So I shifted my thoughts to the second thing that came to mind. A warm bath to ward off the day’s chills.
I buttoned my shirt to the neck, as I walked out the glass and brick dome that was my department. The tree was located in the field beside my department, three of them actually. It was there I decided I would tell Mrs Alabi about it, I was interested in working on it as a project.
I woke up to the sound of chirping birds and the loud shrill of my alarm clock the next morning. I turned off the alarm as I sat up groggily on my bed, said a short prayer, read my bible and headed to the bathroom.
When I was through bathing, I pulled on a pink floral shirt and a grey flared skirt.I decided to leave without the girls, to check out the tree.
I plugged my ears with my earpiece and switch foot’s voice sang out when I pressed the play button on my phone. “Awakening.”.
“I want to know that my heart’s still beating, its beating, I’m bleeding,” I crooned along.
I arrived at the field, where a man, I recognized as one of the security guards, was searching the grassy grounds, probably for more pods. I removed my earpiece and pressed the stop button as I walked towards him.
“Good morning sir.”
He turned to me, holding about four good sized pods in his right hand. His face broke into a grin, revealing kola nut stained teeth. I smiled politely in reply.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine sir…erm…what do they use those seeds you’re holding for?”
“This wan, dem dey boil am to make the hard body soft, them go come peel am off, soak am for water and boil am again.”
What a tedious process, I thought. However I had asked what they used it for, not how they cooked it. I decided to try a different approach.
“What’s the name?”
“Na erm… erm… I no remember the name, but Igbo people dey put am for abacha. I no dey eat am. Na one of my padi say make I pick am for am. Na the season be this.”
“Thank you…please can I have one.”
“No problem…no problem at all.”
He handed one over to me. I smiled, thanking him.
I walked into my department hurriedly and glanced at my watch. 8:13. Thirteen minutes late. Fortunately, the lecturer was not in class. He breezed in about five minutes later.
After his class, I headed to my supervisor’s office.
“Good morning ma,” I said from the half opened door.
She looked up from the sheets of paper that were strewn all over her desk.
“Temi, how are you.”
“Fine, thank you.”.
I fell into one of the seats that faced her.
“I wanted to show you this ma,” I said bringing out the seed “I thought it would be a good idea to work on it for our project.”
She picked it up and examined it.
“Interesting, what is this.”
“I do not know, however, I heard it is one of the ingredients used in preparing African salad, they boil it to soften the coat…,” I said, tapping the hard coat “….and peel it open.”
“However, I don’t think it would be wise to do that,” I continued. “The heat could destroy some of the compounds and we just never know which of the compounds might give us a scientific breakthrough.”
“Very valid point there,” she said, as the turned the pod around. She cleared her throat “Okay, take this to Mr Thomas, his office is in the botany lab downstairs, he should be able to tell you what it is. Tell him I sent you.”
I collected it back from her and slipped it into my jeans pocket.
Back at the lecture hall, I showed Nkechi, a friend of mine, the pod, to see if she would know the name.
“I have never seen this in my life,” she said turning the pod around in her hand.
“And when they say Igbos should raise up their hands, you would raise up your hands, abi,” I said jokingly.
She punched my arm lightly and I laughed.
Later that day, I went to meet Mr Thomas. He wanted things done in the proper order. I had to dry press the leaves, shells and pods of the tree. It irked me; I really did not have time for that.
I reported back at my supervisor’s office recounting the outcome of my visit to Mr Thomas office.
Disgust wrinkled her face.
‘Why didn’t he just tell you the name?”
“He said the plant has to be properly documented and put in the library,” I replied, shrugging my shoulder.
“Okay.” She sighed. “Do what he says.
I groaned inwardly. We heard a knock on the door.
“Good afternoon ma,” John said as he walked in and sat down on the chair beside me. He leaned forward and picked the pod. “Isn’t this Ugba.”
My Supervisor and I looked at him, excitedly.
“I don’t know. I heard the Igbos use it in making African salad,” I replied.
“That’s it, its ugba.”
My supervisor had already started typing in ugba into the search engine.
“Pentaclethra macrophylla, that’s the name,” she said snapping her fingers.
She turned the laptop towards us and sure enough, there was the picture of the pod, seeds and leaves.
When I got back to my hostel, I powered my laptop and searched out Pentaclethra macrophyll. Not much had been done on it. Google brought up very few scholary works on it. Perfect. New territory.
We settled on determining the effect of the ugba juice on brain cells invivo. For some reason, Mrs Alabi was interested in Alzheimer’s disease. I heard a rumour that her father had been diagnosed with the disease.
It made no sense to me though, our determining its effects on the brain cells, especially since there were no tradomedicinal indications that the seeds were used in managing Alzhiemer’s disease or any other brain illness for that matter. Besides, it was a very well known fact that very few chemicals had the ability to cross the blood brain barrier. However, she was the supervisor.
We injected the animals, rats, with chemicals capable of killing their brain cells and took a CT scan of their brains; it showed brain damage to several areas of their brain. I felt sorry for the poor rats.
The effect of the brain damage manifested behaviourally, seizures, twitching and other symptoms.
We began to feed the test group with the ground juice of the ugba seed and for the control, we fed them with water.
The test group rats improved dramatically after a week of ingesting the juice. The seizures and other symptoms caused by the brain damage stopped completely.
The test rats also showed improved levels of intelligence; they rarely scampered around as rats did, it seemed like they mapped out a particular area of their cage to shed their cages. When they ate the food we put in little white bowls, in their cages, they did not scatter it around the cage. They actually seemed to take turns in drinking from the water bottles.
It was fascinating and very surreal. Impossible type of surreal.
We however lost so many of the control group rats.
After a month, CT scans of their brains were taken. Mrs Alabi called us to her office a week later.
“I just got this.” ; she said tossing the brown envelope containing the results of the CT scan on her table. She shut the windows of her office and turned on the switch of her air conditioner. I was excited, and a tad bit nervous. The results were going to tell us if we made a breakthrough, or if we wasted our time, effort and money. However, from what we had seen, the project seemed quite successful.
She sat down, opened the envelope, pulled out the results and stared. Her mouth formed a perfect O.
“Oh my goodness…t-that is impossible,” she stammered. Deep furrows formed on her forehead.
My eyes widened “What happened.”. I strained to look at the result “Is this possible.”
She passed the results to me and after I had examined them, I passed them to my other group mates. I could see the surprise that crept up their faces as they stared at the results incredulously.
The areas with brain damage, which we had recognized by the black areas in the previous CT scan, were now white. Also, the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for intelligence, had grown slightly larger.
At first science made us understand that brain cells, neurons, do not regenerate, however further research showed that brain cells regenerate under certain circumstances, permit me to say slowly. The juice had made their brain cells regenerate quickly and completely.
“Think of the possibilities…,” Mrs Alabi was saying as her voice trailed off. Her eyes held a dreamy faraway look.
It was big, real big; it was like “THE CURE.” for Alzheimer’s, and think of other brain disease and damages it could cure. It could drastically reduce, if not stop the forgetfulness that came with old age.
When I got to the hostel, I told my friends about it. Their eyes widened in surprised.
“Temi, this is big mhen,” Nkechi said tapping me. “Like really really big.”
“I know, it’s so baffling, to think, that it’s something eaten regularly in this part of the country, and no one knew about this.”
I went to bed happy that night, it could be the beginning of great things, I thought. How wrong I was; I was about to find out the danger the scientific discovery would put my life in.