Accommodating Madness: Remembering My NYSC Days In Okposi
"The lunatics may be outnumbered but they own the place" - Chinua Achebe
It is now nearly three years since I completed my national youth service in Ohaozara, a small town in Igbo land. I have written, and quite successfully too, a handful of ethnographic articles capturing the strange moments and interesting experience I had as an alien Yoruba youth in Igbo land. These articles, woe unto a boastful man, has broken the internet and bursted several big blogs, becoming one of the most widely read articles about Igbo culture, about the people of Okposi, on the internet.
Three years, one would assume, is such a long time, long enough for a newly born baby to learn how to walk and talk, long enough for an addicted "Baba Ijebu" player who has never won a meaningful amount of money to quit. Yet, my friend, three years has not been long enough to wipe out the memories of the strange and sweet things I observed while in the beautiful village of Okposi in a local government known as Ohaozara, sitting in the silent state of Ebonyi.
Three years have been incapable of swallowing the hospitality I was shown in Igbo land; to stamp out the memories of the green snakes, forbidden to be killed, which visited me in the bedroom; to dustbin the beautiful voices of the villagers who gleefully roared "Copa Shun" whenever I marched down to the market with my black Baco bag trapped beneath my armpit. Three years have not been able to dig into my mind and shovel away the normal madness I observed during my NYSC days in Okposi.
Any reader who is fortunate enough would, perhaps, have stumbled on my previous articles which gave a lucid description of my journey from Lagos to Igbo land, to Okposi. Here is in fact an extract from one of the articles I wrote on July 3rd 2013:
"We arrived Okposi few hours after midday. The town seemed to be the most developed region in Ohaozara local government. The town has motor parks, restaurants, two or more hotels, a police station, churches, markets, petrol stations, amongst others. The roads within the town were motorable, the people were Igbo speaking and quite industrious."
But there was one aspect of the Okposi life I skipped, perhaps due to absentmindedness or out of the risk of being labelled a tribalist. It was the scary, heavy presence of mad men and women everywhere like anti-riot policemen. For the about 18,000 hours I spent in Okposi, for I was not a ghost corps member, I witnessed the aimless parade of mad people across the streets. Sometimes, I see up to twenty or more mad persons daily each of them displaying a different shade of madness, to the extent that I started to doubt my own sanity.
There is a Yoruba proverb which, when interpreted loosely, says - it is pleasant to enjoy the acrobat of a lunatic but nobody wants to give birth to a lunatic. And indeed some lunatics performed distinctively on the streets of Okposi. Very prominent was a man who was widely known as Man-must-wack. This Man-must-wack man was remarkable for whistling unnecessarily like a drunk football referee. He whistled hard all day, smoking cigarettes - hailing and cursing passersby. Man-must-wack, a friend to corps members, told us severally that he graduated from the university in the year nineteen ninety "gro-go-dom" whatever that meant. We gave him money and, if he was happy, he fetched us some water from the well. He was a normal mad man.
Then, there was another mad man who was known as Patrick. He could quote several verses of the Good Book. Patrick's best attire was a yard of garri sack which barely covered the dangling "Gala" between his legs. He was mildly hefty, his yellow head sitting firmly on his thick neck. We were told that Patrick was a fervent prayer warrior before he ran mad. Too much prayers? Patrick was one of the most favourite mad men in Okposi. This was because he was a good labourer , one who did not know the proper price of his labour. He was, thus, taken to large farms by greedy sane persons to make long ridges and get paid an insane sum of just 20 naira. These land owners did profit from the madness of Patrick, and they profited abundantly.
Although I do not intend to write the biography of mad persons, permit me to mention another distinguished normal mad woman I observed while in Okposi. I cannot remember her name presently but her deeds were worthy of note. She had rough ringlets, pointed nose, different straps of clothes running around her waist. She spoke Igbo always and threw Igbo dance steps whenever she heard good music. The red tubby intestine which flowed from a part of her stomach could not kill her, could not stop her from throwing Igbo dance steps.
My curiosity about the pervasiveness and accommodation of mental illness in Okposi pushed me beyond mere observations to making clandestine researches about the subject. A number of villagers with whom I developed acquaintances, for reasons unknown to me to this day, were reluctant to speak on the subject. I nevertheless gathered that some of the insane persons littering the streets were not Okposi indigenes but fugitives from other ethnic groups who learnt to speak Igbo in their madness.
Some villagers also claimed that some of the insane persons I observed were dumped at Okposi by relatives and family members who became fed up after several years of coping with the excesses of madness. Is Okposi then a psychiatric home to insane persons? I do not think so. I can say, however, that Okposi showed hospitality and humanness to those suffering from mental illnesses. The mad persons in Okposi, unlike you would find in Lagos and other big cities, have human rights and are seen as normal human beings. This, I think, the Okposi people believed would help the mad people quickly come out of their insanity.
The warm treatment of mad persons in Okposi is strange, indeed, but it is familiar. It is familiar because every citizens of this nation have learnt to cope with madness, political and economic madness. We have learnt to cope with the madness of spending four or more years in the university and returning home to keep keys for neighbours, jobless. We have learnt to live with the madness of buying foreign goods while our Naira keeps drowning. We have learnt to cope with the chains that have come with voting for change. We are a nation that copes with too many madnesses, to the point where the few who have dared to come out of their madness are seen to be insane. Did we not bite those who said the president does not have the capacity to make one naira equal to one dollar?
The accommodation of mental illness in Okposi is justifiable and excusable but the madnesses in our own national life should not be tolerated any further.
Ademule David is a student of human society and crime. He lives and writes from Lagos where he goes , mostly at nights, carrying his magical pen in his pockets.