“When a foolish person is doing something he is not ashamed of, then it is always a difficult task to call him to order.”
An old man began a conversation with his friends this way as they sat under the large Afugwu tree near the centre of the village square over kegs of palm wine. The subject being discussed was Otseme, a man who thought little of how the entire village saw his person.
Agila village was blessed with very fertile soil; there was hardly a household that did not engage in one form of agricultural practice or the other. In fact, a joke said to have originated from traders who trouped into the village on market days had it that its soil was so productive that even dried bones, if planted, would eventually grow and transform into lush fruit-bearing trees.
Most men in Agila were skilled and assiduous farmers even as many others took to hunting. But not Otseme; he was not known to have any reliable source of livelihood, hence did very little for the upkeep of his household. His saving grace was Aladi, his wife.
After repeated complaints to her father, she was given a patch of land on which, with the help of her children, she cultivated crops for the family. How she agreed to marry an indolent man like Otseme remained a puzzle to the villagers given that she came from a family that upheld hard work as a cardinal virtue.
A handsome man in every sense, Otseme in his youth was said to have dazzled Aladi with a combination of his looks and a sugar-coated tongue. While they were in courtship, Otseme shared with Aladi his grandiose plans. A great future, then, was before them, but, as it was to be, only in his imagination.
As she fell for his posturing, all entreaties from Aladi’s parents to dissuade her from her course of action failed. In her youthful mind, Otseme was the perfect Okorobia any young maiden would do anything to have for a husband.
Everything happened so fast from there that by the time Aladi realized her mistakes years later she was already neck deep in a marriage that was nowhere near the grandeur Otseme had painted in her mind. The reality stared her in the face from that point; he was either a fraud all along or his plans for the future must have derailed for some reason.
But Otseme was not the one to show remorse for any inadequacies. Instead, the blame for his woes would always be hung on the neck of some other person.
“I have too many enemies who don’t want me to succeed in this village.” was a common refrain from him.
As he ranted away, Aladi, seeing through his lies, would feel like hitting him on the jaw with the pestle she used to pound Fufu. The poor woman had now found herself crying back to her parents for counsel and possible support. But on the occasions that she went to them, they only told her to learn to live with the man she had chosen of her own free will to spend the rest of her life with.
Otseme’s case was such that other men in the village mockingly referred to him as the man whose heart was asleep. As if under a curse from the gods, he just refused to commit himself to a particular craft or to acquire a skill to add value to his life. Worse still, he cared less about what people thought of him. “After all, they are the same people who are bewitching me and preventing my star from shining,” he would conclude in a most nonchalant manner.
Otseme soon got acquainted with the old and devious Pa Idoko whose fairly big grain stall was a long stone throw from the former’s compound. Pa Idoko was as a matter-of-fact a man given to pleasure. A confirmed womanizer, he would go the whole hog to satisfy his lust for a woman. Married at six different times, he had divorced each of the six women for very flimsy reasons (in most cases, before they were even properly settled in his house). In fact, the sixth and last wife was commended by the villagers for exhibiting such incredible patience to have lived with him for about seven years before he suddenly realized on a certain morning that she was the worst house keeper he ever met.
As he threw her belongings out, he described her as a dirty woman who was not even capable of bearing male children for him. “I need male children to carry on with my name so that I can equally teach them the secret of my success in trade, and not those weaklings you have produced!”
He sent the weeping woman back to her parents’ compound and with a stern warning that she never comes anywhere near his house…
It was this same Pa Idoko that had now become Otseme’s new friend in the village. The companionship began when the much older Pa Idoko started inviting Otseme to keep him company at his stall during the day, during those periods when most serious-minded men were busy in honorable ways around the village.
To the lazy Otseme, it was an invitation he relished, particularly because of the palm wine provided by the older Pa Idoko as they exchanged banters and challenged each other to the game of echeh or draft in the intervals when there was no customer to attend to.
Then in the evening, Pa Idoko would send for Otseme to join him at the Ofu or village square so they could drink more wine together.
Soon Otseme was spending more time in the company of the old man than with his family.
There were evenings he would drink himself to near stupor then staggered home to the waiting arms of his very unhappy wife and children.
He was a big shame to Aladi. She pleaded with him to stop going to stay at Pa Idoko’s stall and instead try to do something positive with his life. But Otseme would not hear any of it.
The poor woman swore she would have walked out of the marriage if not for her endearing and innocent children. Moreover, she feared that the villagers may come to see her in bad light.
“Pa Idoko is the only person that understands me in the whole of this village,” Otseme would mutter in his drunken state as Aladi helped him undress after another drinking binge, “Every other person in this village is a witch, including you, Aladi.”
“Look at what you’re doing to yourself, Otseme. Look at what you’ve turned into. You have become a slave to that wicked old man,” Aladi said to her unrepentant husband, “Are you happy with your life like this?”
“Yes I’m happy with my life. For your information, my life is beginning to make sense to me now that Pa Idoko is my good friend; he is the only friend I have who doesn’t see me as a failure. He buys palm wine for me without complaining and he encourages me to forget the problems of life and be happy, see? He is a good man.”
“Pa Idoko is only taking advantage of you, my husband.”
“Let him take advantage of me. It is nobody’s business.” Otseme replied and chuckled in drunken amusement.
Aladi was simply fed up with her husband’s lifestyle. Many were the nights that she sat up in bed and wept into the early morning hours, full of regrets for ever falling in love with Otseme.
The worst of it was that Otseme did not seem to be aware of the pains he was causing his wife and three lovely children.
Ene, the eldest child was really affected by his shameful conduct. On many occasions, while trekking to the forest to fetch firewood, her peers had teased her because of her father. At such times, Ene wished she and her siblings had someone else for a father; someone to love and make them proud. She always felt a gnawing emptiness at the thought of a father who was just not there for them. As it was, she and her siblings had only their mother, Aladi for support.
Aladi had tried many times to councel Otseme only for him to retort on each of these occasions: “If you want me to start doing well, then go and tell your father to release my destiny and allow me to face my life.”
“Nobody is holding your destiny, Otseme,” Aladi would reply, “You are not doing well because you simply chose not to. I wish you could change your attitude, at least for the sake of our children.”
“What children?’’ Otseme grumbled, “Let me be honest with you, I’m beginning to suspect you and those children of yours. I suspect that you people have something to do with my misfortune.”
“That is what you have always said, Otseme,” Aladi cried, “But don’t you get tired of deceiving yourself? You never get tired of looking for whom to blame for your failures. I wish I had listened to my parents…” she lamented.
“Go on. Go ahead and insult me! Tell me to my face that I’m the poorest man in Agila. Why won’t I be poor when your wicked father has not forgiven me because I married his daughter against his wish? You should blame your father for all my problems. He bewitched me.”
“The way you talk, Otseme,” Aladi hissed, “If I didn’t know you I would have concluded that you have a spiritual problem.”
“So it’s now you know that I have a spiritual problem? Anyway, as I have said, if you want me to change, then go and help me beg your father to release my destiny which I know he is hiding somewhere in his bedroom.”
“I wish this was just a bad dream.” Aladi sighed and shook her head in frustration.
“Bad dream, eh? What your father and my enemies are doing to me in this village is worse than any bad dream, Aladi. If my head was not too strong for them, they would have killed me long ago. But they can’t. I will shame them one by one, you will see.”
Aladi could hardly believe this was the same Otseme who was once full of great dreams. She remembered how at the beginning he had impressed her with fantastic ideas about their future together. She could not, therefore, reconcile the stranger before her now. What happened to the ideal man she fell in love with? Instead of the blissful future Otseme painted, all she had now was the harrowing experience of fending for herself and her three children.
Otseme was clearly in a non-existent world from which he had been unable to come back to reality.
But a ray of hope appeared when he was temporarily compelled to stay home for a few days following a debilitating fever that accompanied a pounding headache. While he recuperated, Aladi was always by his bedside, seizing on the opportunity to implore him once again to try to do something worthwhile with his time.
“I know you can do it, Otseme,” she urged in a piteous voice, “Remember that it was because I believed in you that I agreed to marry you even against my parents’ wish. Please make me and your children happy for once.”
Uncharacteristically, Otseme appeared to be willing to give his wife’s counsel some consideration as he listened keenly unlike other times when he would have put up an argument. And what was more, he woke up the next morning and announced excitedly, to his surprised family, that he had a dream in which he was cultivating a vast expanse of farmland to grow plenty of cash crops. He explained that in this dream his farm was soon producing such abundant crops that attracted the attention of people even from as far as the neighboring villages.
“I think this must be the sign I have always waited for,” he told his wife and children, triumphantly, “I swear it’s a sign from the gods that I should go into farming as my vocation. It’s a confirmation that my destiny lies in farming.”
Aladi and her children were very happy and grateful that an amazing transformation had come over Otseme at last. Their prayers to the gods were beginning to yield results finally. Or who could have imagined Otseme suggesting, of his own volition, that he would go into farming?
And as if energized by this sudden awakening, Otseme hurried over to see and discuss the idea with his friend, Pa Idoko as soon as he was able to leave his sick bed.
“I’ve made up my mind to go into farming.” he told his old friend who did not seem to catch the excitement initially.
“Well, it is a good idea, you know,” Pa Idoko said afterwards, “In fact, I have always wanted to suggest something like that to you but I’ve been waiting for the right time all along.”
“No other time could be more right than now, Pa Idoko. The revelation was too vivid for me to have missed the message, I swear. It was a very precise message to me from the gods.”
“And did the gods also show you how to get the money you will need to buy the farmland and do the cultivation? Because between you and me we both know that you don’t have any farmland here in Agila,” Pa Idoko said and chuckled.
“I-eh, you see, that’s the main reason I’ve come to you,” Otseme stammered through the words, “You know what they say; a man will know his true friend when his needs stare him in the face.”
“You’re talking in parable, Otseme,” Pa Idoko replied, “Can you speak in a more plain language?”
“Pa Idoko, you’re the only true friend I have in the whole of Agila and I’m convinced that you will be delighted to see me put all my detractors to shame by helping me make progress in life.” Otseme said imploringly.
“You’re an interesting character, my good friend,” the older man said and laughed loudly, patting Otseme on the shoulder in a good-humored manner, “You never cease to amuse me, I swear.”
“Please I need you to help me.” Otseme begged him.
Pa Idoko paused to think over Otseme’s request then asked: “What exactly do you want me to do for you?”
Otseme cleared his throat. “I need you to lend me some money with which to acquire the land I intend to farm on. I would also need money to buy the seedlings and pay the young men that would work for me on the farm.”
“So you want me to lend you some money, eh?”
Otseme nodded, silently hopeful that Pa Idoko would oblige his request.
“And like how much are we looking at here?” The old man asked after another long pause.
Otseme could not believe his luck; Pa Idoko was evidently considering lending him the money. “I would need around ten thousand naira, if that would be possible.”
“Ten thousand naira?” Pa Idoko murmured thoughtfully rather to himself and sighed deeply.
Otseme’s heart thumped so loud in its cage he thought the whole village could hear it as he awaited the old man’s next response.
“I could easily lend you the money, Otseme,” Pa Idoko said afterwards, “But how in the name of my ancestors do you intend to raise the money to pay me back when the time comes?”
“I swear I will pay you back as soon as I harvest and sell the crops. I saw everything in my dream. The gods have revealed to me that if I go into farming, I will be successful.”
“Hmmmm…” the cunning old man sighed, rubbing his palm against his lean cheek and appearing to go into deeper contemplation, “I will give you the money.” he finally said after what Otseme thought almost took forever.
“Imor! In’kwun’mulame! I’m about to be financially liberated at last!” Otseme exclaimed excitedly. He was instantly overcome with a surge of triumphant feeling. “Thank you Pa Idoko, thank you very much. The gods shall bless you. I have always known that I can rely on you whenever the need arises. Thank you very much!” He shook hands vigorously with the old man.
“I haven’t finished talking,” Pa Idoko responded unhurriedly, “Nothing goes for nothing, you know? You see, I also want a favor from you in return.”
“Pa Idoko, you know I would do anything you request of me in this village.” Otseme replied in his excitement.
Pa Idoko coughed and hemmed. “Actually, I have always wanted to discuss this with you but I didn’t know how you would take it.”
“What could that be, Pa Idoko?” Otseme wondered aloud. He was eager to know exactly what the old man was driving at.
“You see, I… How is Ene your eldest daughter?”
Otseme raised an eyebrow suspiciously and frowned a little. He wondered why Pa Idoko was trying to change the topic of their conversation. “I don’t remember telling you that she was sick or something?”
“That’s not what I mean, Otseme. I’m only trying to know if you have been taking good care of that girl. She is such a beautiful -”
“Thank you very much for showing concern for my children, Pa Idoko,” Otseme said in an impatient tone.
“Ene, particularly.” the old man said with a coy grin plastered to his bony face.
“Please, can we continue with our discussion?”
“My good friend, do you realize I can help you make a fortune in this village? All I want from you in return is to allow me marry Ene your daughter.”
Otseme thought he did not hear the old man well. His ears, he believed, must have played a quick trick on him. “What did you just say?” he asked Pa Idoko.
“Don’t get me wrong, Otseme. You are my friend and I know you really need help. I’m willing to offer any financial assistance to you and your family. You see, if I marry your daughter, you will benefit, I will benefit, your daughter will benefit and everybody will be happy.”
“Pa Idoko, do you know the girl you are talking about is barely fourteen years old?”
“How does that matter, my good friend? At least we all know that few years ago, most women even went to their husbands’ houses at much younger ages.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t let you marry Ene,” Otseme said, shaking his head vigorously, “You are way too old for my daughter. No.”
“In fact that is why I want to marry her; with my age and experience, I am in the best position to take very good care of her. I learn that Ogenyi is the boy befriending her? Look, my good friend, don’t let that useless boy deceive your daughter and ruin her life. I bet he knows nothing about caring for a woman yet.”
“Even if I give my consent, the girl’s mother will never agree. I know my wife.” Otseme said to Pa Idoko after a careful consideration of the old man’s demand.
“How do you talk like this? Are you not the father of the girl? Once you take a decision, your wife’s opinion will thereafter not really matter, see?”
Otseme thought it over and over in his mind. He needed the money badly. But Pa Idoko was making a request that he was not sure he wanted to assent to. He cupped his head in his hands to give it a thorough thought.