As Eneh drove away from the school toward his workplace that morning, he kept wondering about the revelations. He recalled that morning, eight years ago, when Toby was handed over to him. The boy was barely four years old then. They had moved to Lagos and lived together even before he secured a job as a quality control officer in the beverage processing plant he was presently rushing to. Since when Toby enrolled in school, his academic performance had always dwarfed those of his peers. He had taken the first school leaving certificate examinations while he was in primary four, passed with distinctions and proceeded to secondary school ahead of others. At Obanlede High school, he had become the leader of the school Mathematics and Quiz clubs, just within three years. There was more to it than ordinary brilliance. Toby was gradually becoming his late father- even unto the mystical aspects. Eneh couldn’t piece it together, yet he knew he had to heed the principal’s advice. The boy had to be withdrawn from Obalende High School, to a school safer for genuises like him.
17th May, 2006
Uyo, Southern Nigeria.
Eneh was awakened by an eerie sound. He rolled over on the bed fumbling about the bedside for his Nokia cell phone. The time on the phone screen was 6:05 a.m. He heard the sound again, tiptoed to the window and peeped behind the curtain. He was surprised to see a human form sitting atop the fence. It crossed over and jumped into the compound. Eneh thought it was a thief and wanted to raise alarm but abandoned the thought momentarily. It was already morning. What could a burglar be doing in the morning? The human form sidled forward, mumbled and staggered as it passed the window towards the door. Only then did Eneh realize who it was. Bassey Abang, the village madman. What was Bassey doing scaling his fence, he thought? And where was he going? The previous evening at Madam Black’s joint, Bassey had told him of a secret in his keeping. He wanted to reveal it to him only, he had said. Eneh did not take it to heart. He thought that the drink he bought for the man had loosened his tongue, or it was just madman talk. Now, as he stood contemplating by the window, he realized the man must have been serious about it.
It all started at Madam Black’s joint. Madam Black was the short, plump woman that sold Ogogoro- a cheap locally brewed dry gin, along his street. In Uyo where he came from- as it were in other riverine towns and cities of southern Nigeria, Ogogoro was the opium of the poor masses. Ogogoro vending stalls were easy to set-up. All that was required was a table, used Eva water bottles to stock diverse herbs used to impact different flavours to the gin, an umbrella to shield the concoctions from the direct heat of the tropical sun and a couple of benches for customers. In most cases, cigarettes, kola-nuts and bitter-kolas, as well as mint chewing-gums were sold as accompaniments. Eneh wasn’t an alcoholic. He had drank the occasionally beer or two in his university days. But the frustration of being unemployed, four years after graduation had gotten to him. He had graduated as one of the top ten in his class from the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2002. The next year saw him successfully completing the National Youth Service Corps, a compulsory cultural and socio-ethnic exchange programme established after the Nigeria-Biafran civil war in 1973 to enhance ethnic re-integration and promote national unity. Though the aim of the scheme has been defeated in contemporary Nigeria, fresh university graduates still had to serve the country for a full year, in a state different from ones’ home state and located in a different cultural background from the ones lived or schooled in. He had served as a chemistry teacher in a secondary school in Zamfara, in far away northern Nigeria.
At the end of the service year, the principal of the school had tried every means within his reach to retain him- even giving him a calf which the students took turns to rear, but he could not be persuaded to stay. He was a southerner- an Ibibio who could neither understand the ways of the Hausas, the religious intolerance in the north nor stand the extreme arid-weather. At the end, he had packed up with one thing in mind- the southerner had no place in the north; for he was not only a kafir, but also seen as a corruption to the culture, a diluting factor to the sanctity of religion (Islam) and a sacrificial lamb whose blood must be spilled sooner or later to quench the thirst of the parched land. It was better before the advent of Boko-Haram; now, being a teacher (someone viewed as an agent of western education) and living in the north is like a cockroach living in a poultry farm. If it escapes being eaten for breakfast, it may not escape supper. So, Eneh left the north and returned to his village in Uyo.
At first, he didn’t associate with those Ogogoro drinkers. To him, they were dim wits staggering up and down his street every evening. Soon his prejudice was cured and he was lured- for it was not just the alcohol and cigarette odour that was oozing out from there, but arguments in good grammar too. Most were graduates like him. Only a few had no formal education at all. To them all, as it came to be with him- Madam Black’s was a school of thought were ideas were freely exchanged. At Madam Black’s, the failing polity, prevailing socio-economic conditions as well as the new trend of islamized terrorism were discussed freely. They were all united by the unemployment scourge.
Barely two weeks after his acquaintance with the fold, on a fateful evening, Eneh had his encounter with Bassey Abang, the village madman. Moments before Bassey had lifted the lace-curtain on the door and strutted in, a strong stench different from that of the alcohol and cigarette had wafted into the crowded joint from outside. It was his body odour. The chattering had died down, as every boozer’s attention was drawn to the unexpected guest. The madman had walked up and spoken to him.
“Good people shouldn’t mix up with these retards”. His English was impeccable. His remark had elicited a bout of laughter from the customers in the joint. It was funny that of all the people there, it was him Bassey had chosen to speak to. It was a bit embarrassing too, being addressed that way by a madman. “Buy me a drink, and I’ll be your friend”, Bassey continued. Eneh had signaled Madam Black to give him a tot of the concoction.
“Madam Black, I drink only monkey-tail. Let these eight weaklings drink lemon-grass and lime and bitter-kola and what-have-you”, the madman had said pointing at the other boozers in the joint. He was referring to the herbal blend he preferred his gin. Monkey-tail is the nickname of gin flavoured with marijuana leaves. It is a very strong brew, infact two tot- fulls could knock one out in few minutes. After he had taken a sip from his drink, he turned to Eneh again. “Come let’s talk outside. I have a secret to share and besides, these wretchs are smelling like mice”, as he said that, he had dragged Eneh with one hand while carefully holding the drink in the other. The joint roared again with laughter. Once outside, Bassey addressed him. “Now I’ve reduced the number of fools to seven. I want to make you a rich man, just like me. Those idiots are jealous because they know how rich I am. I am a guru too. I have worked out the hidden numbers; and it is in here”, the madman had said, tapping on his head and momentarily pausing to gulp his brew. He continued. “I like you, so, I will give you the key. When you become rich, you will take care of Otobong for me. I’m not sure you even know Otobong…you must be a fool not to know my fine son. But don’t worry, I will not punish you for your foolishness; rather I’ll reward you for buying me this drink…your reward comes tomorrow, I’ll meet you early in the morning”, He had kept on blabbing. Eneh stared in mock-bewilderment.
“Won’t you say thank you, for offering to help you out of your poverty?”, the mad man had asked him at the end. “Thank you, sir”, Eneh had shouted, bursting into uncontrollable laughter. The madman reminded him once again, that it was a secret, emptied his tot, smiled in satisfaction and walked briskly away.
All these happened the previous evening. Now, the madman was at his door. Eneh didn’t want his neighbors’ attention to be drawn to the madman’s visit; so he wore a shirt and opened the door, even before the madman knocked. “Follow me”, the madman ordered. Eneh followed him to the gate, unlocked it and walked out to the street. Bassey Abang- together with his son lived in a shack located some few houses away from his. Eneh had thought they would be going there. However, he was dismayed when he saw a boy of about four years old standing adjacent to his gate. The boy was nodding and swaying uncontrollably as if he was forcefully woken from sleep. Bassey walked to the boy and dragged him towards Eneh. He held the boy’s hand and placed it in Eneh’s own. The boy hand was thin and wrinkled. He further dug into one of his tattered trouser pocket, brought out a rumpled piece of damp paper and handed it to him. Eneh unfolded the paper; four numbers were scrawled on it. “It took me five years to get those numbers straight. They are the draws for this week’s fixed odds. Bet with it and use the proceeds to take care of Otobong for me”, Bassey said and walked away without even looking back at his son.
Eneh led the boy inside. Though he was unemployed, he made up his mind to take care of him. Two days later, it was heard in the neighbourhood that Bassey Abang, the village madman was dead. Eneh, who had forgotten the rumpled paper in the pocket of the red and white checkered shirt he wore that morning the madman visited, retrieved it and visited Edem’s Success Pools office at Akpakpan street. He placed his two thousand naira worth wager and by weekend he was five hundred thousand naira richer. A week after the madman was interred, Eneh packed his few belongings and together with the boy, boarded a bus to Lagos. There were plenty job opportunities in Lagos, he had half a million naira in his pocket; he was going to live well till he got a job.
*The Madman’s Recompense continues in the next episode*