BUSY WAITING TO DIE
I have a story I have been trying not to tell for a long time. I don't know why I have been keeping it to myself really. May be I have never had anyone to tell the story, but it had been nagging me all the same. Now I feel I must do something about it, tell someone, anyone, in the hope of a break in my unending painful infliction.
I have long lost hope of ever making it. You know what life is like for anyone, for a man, a poor Blackman, a semi illiterate.
Are you listening? It appears you are, so I am going to take you into confidence. I can feel you are warming up to me already. Oh you have feelings, we are friends, and that is good.
As you already know, I was born some 40 years ago in a village called Osemene deep in the woods of Ngazi. There were eleven children in the family and I was the fifth child. Three brothers and a sister were older than me and a brother and five sisters came after me. My father, an illiterate pagan farmer, died when his youngest child was three and the image she has of him, she constructed from recollections of our shabby squalid upbringing.
Our Uncle who inherited us had at the time, 15 children by four wives. He was not scared, however, by the addition of 14 of us including my father's three wives. He put us to work on his farms as soon as we could walk unaided and so I spent my early life digging, planting, harvesting or hunting. I did not know much about schools until I was eighteen when many would consider me too old to start school.
Of my three senior brothers, the oldest learnt the carpentry trade as an apprentice; his immediate junior, completed secondary school education, and the third, graduated from a university where he studied law. They were both helped with the payment of their school fees from the severely depleted resources of our Uncle. As soon as our lawyer brother came into a bit of money, he decided to send me and the other siblings to school. I did not let him down despite my age, but I had to drop out in secondary five when increased family responsibilities began to suffocate him.
Immediately after dropping out of school, I took up employment as a shop assistant to a relation. The pay was poor, N1, 800 a month, but it was some contribution to the fast dwindling fortune of my brother. I had by then lost all ambition of ever becoming the first doctor from our village. In fact, I had grown into a tall handsome man of 24 and women were beginning to notice me. Needless to say, I was a little reckless as a lover and, of course, I was done unto too by many older, more experienced women. In all, I got a child to the bargain, or at least, I was aware of one, although his mother soon poisoned his mind against me. They say that blood is thicker than water. I am sure he would come to his poor helpless father some day, because I love him very much.
I have been through a lot of pain since those early unpromising years. Nothing has changed even now. The sum total of my life has remained the same, one long boring succession of desolation. I have over the years, hopped from one lowly job to another and today, at age 40, I am still chasing after an empty, God-for-saken existence. I have tried several times to break out only to get more hurt and frustrated.
Now at last, I have a labourer's job I have kept for nearly nine months. The longest I have been on any job, despite the frequent threats of dismissal. "These are hard times for business," my bosses would often say, but they keep their jobs while we lose ours.
I work in Apapa and live on its outskirts, in the heart of the sin city called Ajegunle (or Aje-jungle, to the initiated). Don't ask me about Ajegunle. It has a mystery all of its own. I know this much though. It is the most neglected, most squalid, most unkempt, most unplanned conglomerate of shanties this side of the universe and the natives have past caring. Anything you fancy you can get from fresh human skulls to shit meal from low-down scavenging in dump sites for survival.
I have a room in a crowded wooden shack at one end of the only road. A bumpy, twisting, uncared for death trap of a road, congested 24 hours a day with juju men, tricksters, Seven-day Adventists, Jehovah witnesses and other hustling miracle pastors, punks, labourers, drug peddlers, cyclists and molues, (the later being the jargon for public pick-up vans). The molues are forever in a mad rush to get to nowhere in particular. The destitutes appear to have all day and all night. Everyone is busy waiting to die.
I have a small drab cell for a room. I have to keep moving my wooden bunk about, to dodge the sun and the rains. I used to share the room with a mate, until he was dispatched recently by a firing squad for his part in a wages grab. My playmates now are mostly flies, ants, rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, lizards and snakes. I don't know why they put up with me really. My blood must be poison to them now for the muck I have been eating.
On the wall, to the left hand-side of the room, there is a mirror, a small mirror, my significant inheritance from my dead mother. She was very attached to the mirror. She believed it had magic power to attract fortunes to its possessor. It had been in my family for several generations. Do you still wonder why we have always been poor in my family? At my mum's dying bedside, I swore reluctantly to continue the tradition of keeping the mirror in the family. But often recently, I have hoped that someone would smash it up for me since I have been too chicken to tempt fate.
Dangling from the roof by the door is a tiny juju gourd given to me by my stepfather before his death about ten years ago. I am supposed to sacrifice a fowl to the gods every so often and I have not done so for years as you can well understand. Every time the juju gourd sways, I fear the gods are rebelling, my ancestors are turning in their graves, but it may have been the wind.
My landlord charges N1, 000 month for my crawl. It has no window. I rely on the rusty perforated zinc roof for ventilation. The door to the room also leads on to the main road. I cook, eat and sleep in the room and considering my destitute situation, it is not altogether uncomfortable but for the permanent traffic noise outside. It is like living in a shallow bunker under a busy motorway and it is so damn irritating at times.
Every work day, I have to be up as early as 5 00 a.m to get to work for 6.30 a.m. Occasionally, I don't make it and I get a warning or a cut in pay, depending on how late I have been. We close at 5.30 p.m but I don't get home until 7.30 – 8.30 p.m most evenings. I am usually so tired when I get home, I drink gari (made from cassava) for supper instead of a cooked meal. Talking about meals, it is often eba (a little more filling cassava meal) with soup revived to last a week by the constant addition of water.
After meals, I sometimes sit outside my room to experience the speeding and hooting traffic. Normally, it is like the entire public transport system in Lagos has been diverted to Ajegunle.
When I eventually go to bed, I tune the radio up loud to try to combat the traffic noise. Now, I cannot sleep anywhere without a radio blaring.
Well yes, I have a radio. I stole it from my junior brother. He appears to be doing fairly well as a N7, 500 (or $150) a month clerk in one of the ministries. He visited me about two years ago after some twelve years separation and he brought the radio along with him. One evening he was out for a walk, I took the radio to hide with a neighbour. I let my brother return home ahead of me to meet a battered door, suggesting that thieves had visited our room in our absence. Of course, only his radio was missing. He left in annoyance that night, swearing never to visit his brother again in Ajegunle.
Sunday is my favourite day of the week. Generally I go to church in the mornings and visit friends or wine palours in the evenings to hustle for free drinks. Clerks are often easy preys on such occasions especially if there is a woman to impress.
Do you know there are clerks on N7, 500 a month who have houses? I know a chap living in Surulere who has three houses of four flats each. Well, I have heard about corruption and so on, but this chap is definitely on N7, 500 a month. He works in a government ministry and goes to church regularly. Of course, he is a functionary with access to public funds, and he is not poor on N7, 500 a month.
I earn less than a N150 (or $1) a day and it works out at roughly N5, 000 (or $50) a month if I am not fined for lateness or absenteeism. I pay my landlord N1, 000 a month for my leaking hellhole. I am still looking for a roommate to replace my late friend.
I spend an average of N1, 800 a month on transportation at the rate of N60 for a normal day return journey. I skip lunch at work most days so as not to spend more than N850 a month at N50 a plate of some shit food not fit for a dog. What is left of my wage, I spend at the rate of N375 a week as follows: Soup N150 (including N50 meat); Gari N50; Plantain (one, of N20); Rice N80; Soap N5; Smoke N20; Vicky, N30 (to help occasionally with domestic chores). The law N20 (to guide against molestation).
Vicky has been extremely generous at times, by donating extra time and labour beyond expectation. She refuses to marry me, however, because as she often puts it, I am too wretched.
But wretched people are entitled to some happiness too, aren't they? We have as much right to this land as the leaders who have selfishly appropriated our commonweal to themselves, but who will give us the chance? There are thousands of people in this country with lots of money for being relatives of our leaders. There are hundreds of millionaires from being awarded contracts not performed, or for idling around corridors of power. I see more and more new cars gliding past on the highways daily. There are new beautiful expensive looking houses everywhere. Obviously, people build them, and people live in them, people who can afford to live in style for doing nothing.
It is a funny country we live in. A few have so much and the rest nothing at all. A few weeks ago, I picked up a dirty rumpled dated newspaper from a dustbin and the first headline I saw, was about Nigeria having over five hundred billion Naira in circulation in one month. Do you know how much of that money I had in my pocket at the time, just a rumpled and dirty N5 note. That was all the money I had in the world, and it was still five days to pay day.
I do not know a lot of arithmetic but five hundred billion Naira for a population of 140 million. I am not even asking for my fair share but surely, am I not entitled to more than N5, 000 a month?
I have sometimes toyed with the idea of setting up a business but how does one go about setting up a business? Can you imagine me, a jejune pauper, walking into a bank and asking for a loan? What would I be offering for security, my rags?
Don't get me wrong. I have considered banks in my idle moments. I have thought of tunnels to connect my room with bank volts. In fact, I have dug such tunnels on a number of occasions only to wake up each time from a dream to find I was still poor.
Why I bother to work I don't know. Politics sometimes fascinates me. They don't need special education, do they? Those politicians I mean. Our National Assembly members regularly steal and divert public money into their private accounts in Switzerland. They go on regular overseas tours to transact their private businesses and by accident look in at the United Nations to take instructions on our behalf.
United Nations, that is a big laugh. That is where the elite world is supposed to meet to trash out what to do with the rest of mankind. That is where the big powers hold the whip. Who says might is not right? The United Nation's library must be full now of empty resolutions on Africa's endless tribal and alien religious wars. Europe toys with the lives of millions of dissipated Africans in their midst, and America breaks international embargo to prove their might.
Nigeria can't even produce its own weapons. Some paper tiger. Whites dominate us here and in their countries. They will continue to do just that as long as we continue to have selfish and unimaginative leaders, and wrong national priorities.
I don't know of any white man who is as poor as I am in Nigeria. That is the honest truth. I have seen so many of them. They all have cars and live in elegant houses. No white man lives in Ajegunle that's for sure. I know that they live in Apapa. Ikoyi and use several servants.
I applied to work for one once. He took a good look at me and nearly spat on me. I wasn't smart enough. To think his allowance on his dog could pay my wages ten-fold. In fact, he had two dogs. There were himself, his wife, a daughter of three, and the two dogs, and they lived in a huge house of five bedrooms. His take home pay and allowances amount to twice what he pays 130 Nigerians working under him in the factory.
They come all the way from some paradise countries obviously, so we give them more of what they are already used to. Life must be very good for the white man. He dominates all animals on God's earth, including black men and their progenies.
It reminds me of the giant bees that stung a man to death up on the hills of Jos some while back. Who says that bees are not sensible? They appear more patriotic than we are. Bees have their rules and no one comes from outside their kind to dominate them. With such bees, who needs an army? We could silence racists in our midst today by releasing a few thousands of our soldier bees in their midst. Power to the people, sorry power to the bees, Nigerian giant bees.
I wish I could turn into a bee or even a scorpion to sting our crooked leaders to death. All of them, just as Rawlings did not too long ago in one swoop in Ghana, to clear the way for the reasonably wholesome society they now enjoy. In fact, I wish I could turn into anything but human. I know someone who was turned into a lizard for taking his neighbour's wife. My lizard friend was, before his mishap, a journalist with a state newspaper. All effort to convert him to his former self was in vain. He appeared content to remain a lizard. Life of a lizard must be very satisfying. Other than the occasional menace of mammals, Lizards have little worries and hardly any responsibilities. They don't need buses, clothes or women, and do not need to be ruled by dishonest politicians. Is it any wonder that our journalist friend preferred to remain in his lizard bliss. Yes, we lost him to the lizards but I envy his freedom from human needs and our heartless leadership.
Not long ago, I was awake to a radio debate on Nigerian leadership. It wasn't the first time I had heard people discussing the ills of our society. It had been going on every day of my 36 years sojourn on earth, but I felt on that occasion that we ought to stop talking and start doing something. Perhaps a revolution of sorts, where the rejects in society overturn the ruling class by force of arms or whatever.
A governor buys billions of naira shares for his state while in office and as soon as he leaves office, loots the entire fund plus profits. The President appoints his son as the shadow oil minister to supervise the oil account as a family purse; the second in command privatizes Nigeria incorporated to himself and trades with funds in his charge for personal gains; the President of the Senate steals N55m from a poor innocent ministerial nominee up for Senate screening; the National Assembly members pay themselves over N30 million a month for assembling for a few hours a week to brawl and bicker like illiterate savages and the Speaker pockets billions of naira on transportation and exchanges blows with whistle blowers before sacking them from the House. So much greed, so much power in the hands of a thief, in our infantile political jungle. Who voted for these criminals in the first place.
Every day, I pray to God to give me a chance to live. I wonder if there is God. I am sure those rich people do not pray as hard as I do. Perhaps, I ought to have been praying to the devil. Devils organize happenings don't they? Don't believe all that crap they tell you about reward being in heaven. Why are pastors having their own here? I want mine here as is the case with all our religious leaders and our rogues in government.
I was involved in the hold-up on Ikorodu Road last week. Mr. Kadiri's death was all a mistake really. We didn't mean to hurt anyone but Mr. Kadiri wouldn't surrender easily and in the ensuing scuffle, the gun I was holding went off. He died immediately. I was so frightened at first but I soon got over it. It was my first big job and we made N370k on Mr. Kadiri's Peugeot.
My share was a clean N75k. I bought some clothes, an iron bed and a fan from the money. I have now given up the labourer's work to devote all my energy and time on my new and apparently lucrative job. I have made enough money from previous hold-ups to buy a television set. I am living well now, and my neighbours are beginning to notice.
Vicky now wants to marry me. She packed in two weeks ago. She shadows me everywhere like a tigress watching over her cub. She knows how I make my money. In fact, she was with the Police all night yesterday answering questions about my whereabouts. I am a suspect you see. Those clever little men in uniform traced a button found at the scene of the murder to a bloodstained shirt without a (similar) button found in my room. I was tipped off about the impending police raid and wasn't caught but they took Vicky. Now my pictures are in all the newspapers. The police claim that I might be able to help them in their enquiries.
Vicky I understand, was severely tortured yesterday night for refusing to give my hideout away. She was released this morning and she immediately passed the information on to me.
I have begun to grow a beard. I reckon if I can remain in captivity for a week my disguise would grow wild enough to fool the police. There is one big job planned for early next week and I don't want to get caught before then. I think we would pull the job off neatly. Every detail has been carefully rehearsed over and over again. I would retire after the job. A lot of money is involved. Nearly two million Naira out of which I get a third.
I would migrate with Vicky and the money to the Niger to begin life afresh. Open a small shop or a food center. The food center idea titillates me more. A chance to make up for the food I have missed in thirty-six years.
I dreamt this morning that I was tied up with three others to face a firing squad. We were surrounded by thousands of people (men, women and children) surging forward, jeering, booing, crying for blood.
By the time the bullets were finally deposited in my chest and stomach, I was ready. I died still wearing my grin of innocence, admonishing the state for being so impatient and making such a mistake. All I wanted was a small slice out of life and I nearly made it.
Two days before the planned two million Naira wages hold-up, I was, with three others, aligned before the arms robbery tribunal, being condemned to die by a firing squad.
Naiwu Osahon, renowned author, philosopher of science, mystique, leader of the world Pan-African Movement.