I was my wife’s employee. She made buns and egg rolls which I hawked all over the city for her. I had a large tall wooden box whose sides were fitted with glass to exhibit my wares to the salivating world. I always held a fork which I beat rhythmically against the sides of my box to draw people’s attention to me as I went from street to street. I made brisk sales, enough to put three square meals on our table.
I was well over forty — I should be around forty-three — but my wife was quite young; she was just twenty-six. She was a graduate of a polytechnic, and she was unemployed like me when we met. She was very creative. Apart from making buns and egg rolls, she also baked cakes and did decorations at events like wedding parties, birthdays, retirements and funerals. Such events were, however, in-between, like once or twice in a month. So, when my wife proposed that she would be making buns and egg rolls and that I should take up the marketing front, I readily agreed. I didn’t like to continue as I had been — a mere loafer and an ordinary consumer of her largess.
As time went on, my wife gradually began to assume the position of the husband and I became more and more of a wife. I let her. She was the only woman who had had the large-heartedness to marry me plus my many shortcomings. No other woman I knew had ever taken me seriously. At forty-three and unemployed, if I misbehaved and this generous lady left me, I might never be able to marry again. So, I was happy to be my wife’s wife.
At home, I cooked our meals and did the laundry and also ran errands for her. People of our neighbourhood called me a fool but I was a happy fool. Before the woman condescended to marry me, I had worked as a private school teacher and a gardener cum servant to a young nouveau riche who had made his fortunes through internet fraud. The meagre salary I took every month-end was like fetching water from a well and continuously pouring it into a basket with a thousand holes; the money drained away faster than I made it. What dealt the coup de grace to my unrewarding servitude was I and my young master’s arrest by the police. I spent six months in detention before the young man absolved me and told them I was just his gardener and servant.
Two months after I was let off the police hook, I met my Juliana. I didn’t deserve her love as I wasn’t distinguished in anything. I was not a success, I was not a beauty, I was not even a brain. But she loved me, she wanted me, she had me, she kept me and I was happy. I had been used to doing things at the behest of other people, but now I did things at the behest of my wife — and she was mine as I was hers. Good!
Now, coming to the present, seven days ago, I went out hawking. I had to venture far out of my normal route because the sale was not as brisk as it used to be. My wife always wanted me to sell “the whole house.” I sold “the whole house” when no bun or egg roll remained in my tall wooden box. My wife would be happy; she would hug me and kiss me, as she took the money from my hand. And I would be happy too. She planned to start operating a classy restaurant when we had enough capital, and our capital could only grow if I continued to sell “the whole house” day by day. But when I couldn’t sell the whole house, she would whip me to jelly with her sharp tongue. She would call me a lazy old man. I hated it when she called me an old man, let alone added the infamous epithet — lazy. So, I had to go out of my way to sell every bun and egg roll and earn her sweet kisses and hugs — my wife, my love, and my redeemer. God willing, she was going to create wealth for us. She had the aptitude, the temerity and the inner propellers to drive us to astounding success. I would let her drive me; I had been without drive all along.
Far out on this newly-taken route leading to a big secondary school, where I hoped the teeming students would patronise me, I came across a mad man lying in the shrubs by the roadside. His baggage of rags and blackened sacks were scattered all about him. As I passed by him, he made a little grunt. I paused to take a look. His tired rheumy eyes held mine and I poured my whole being into his. He was Alani, my long-lost cousin. Alani left home twenty years ago, already crazy like a cobweb. All searches conducted for him then proved futile. He seemed to have evaporated into nothingness. Even spiritual searches for him through diviners declared him unseen and unsee-able. It was the grief of his affliction and loss that caused the death of his mother, before his father followed five years after.
And now that I saw him, I recognised him instantly, despite his blackened wrinkles and dirt and madness. And he seemed to have recognised me too. I thought he wanted to call my name — Ayofe. His mouth opened but no sound came out of it. Perhaps he was too far gone into mental whirlwind to remember my name. He tried to sit up, but he couldn’t do that also. He might be sick or he might be injured. People were becoming very unkind these days to mad people, because some criminals had taken to behaving as if they were mad to be able to perpetuate their criminal acts. This made the people to be ever suspicious of even the raving mad ones. I put down my box of buns and egg rolls, opened it and forked out two big pieces, wrapped them in a paper and went to him.
“Alani, take this and eat.”
He stretched his blackened arm and took it with his claw-like fingers. I saw appreciation in his rheumy red eyes, but still no word came out of his mouth.
Alani and I were cousins and bosom friends. Our grandfathers were brothers. But we didn’t bear the same surname. Everybody in our clan took the name of his father as surname. I was Ayofe Alamu while he was Alani Rasidi. We lived on the same street. Most of the houses on our street and its many alleys were owned by our kindred, descendants of our great-great grandfather, a once upon a time king of our town. We were princes, but pauperised ones. Our clan has witnessed some glories, but now, majority of us gloried in our past and our long-receded sway.
There were many cousins, but out of these legions, Alani was my favourite. We were born at a week’s interval. I was born on the seventh day of his birth, exactly when the learned ones from a nearby mosque were gathering in front of his father’s house to give him a name. Our mothers became better friends because of the proximity of our birthdays, and their friendship was the launching pad of ours. We were taken to school on the same day, to the same school. We were made to sit on the same bench, and we wrote on the same desk. We were always of the same height and colour. People said we had the glowing black skin of our great grandfather. May Allah rest his soul.
We were in primary two, aged eight or thereabout when we had the experience that I thought to be the genesis of our present predicaments. He, a mad man, I, a never-do-well hawker of buns and egg rolls for my wife at forty-three. It was during Ramadan fasting period. Our people were Muslims. Our great-great grandfather was said to have been a patron of Islam, and the one who gave Islam the enabling impetus in our town. Therefore, we were always being made to wake up just before dawn to take our shaur, as we were expected to fast the whole days of Ramadan. Our fathers were strict about this, but our mothers were not. They believed we were not old enough to fast at eight or so. So, most times when we returned from school, in the hot afternoons of Ramadan, we would be taken to the cocoons of their private rooms, and fed sumptuous meals. Then we would be made to clean our mouths, come out, stretch our tired limbs, pretending to be equally famished like others, with frowned faces, and inflammable dispositions, ever ready to burst into flames of fight at the slightest provocation.
And that Saturday, it was a Saturday, we woke up late because they had earlier woken us up before dawn to eat our shaur, and also because it was not a school day. So, around ten in the morning, we took our hoops which were originally bicycle wheels, and rolled them out into the street. We hit them persistently with batons to make them go faster and faster, and we galloped along after them. We were clad only in pairs of knickers and left our torsos unprotected. Shirts and tops were often regarded as hindrances to us except during the harmattan when the weather was unusually chilly and over-exposure to it brought us cold and catarrh. We ran wild behind our speeding hoops from streets to streets until we came to our school. It was deserted except for four other boys playing football. We ran our hoops all over the school fields several times until we were tired, and our energetic little bodies were covered in grimy sweat. We sat down and rested. The sweat dried and coalesced into a network of dirt on our bodies.
We afterwards decided to go to Yafoye stream to swim and wash ourselves. We loved swimming in streams and rivers during Ramadan. It afforded us the opportunity of drinking as much water as we wanted while we swam and washed. We didn’t see it as breaking our fast. We would just dive into the water and in so doing, allow the water to automatically enter our mouths. We believed it was a way to drink while fasting without incurring the wrath of God since we had not deliberately taken cups to our mouths or plugged them to running taps. At times I would even feel like God would not see me as I gulped draught and draught of water while my head lay buried below the water surface.
We ran our hoops energetically towards the gentle rippling stream of Yafoye. When we arrived the streamside, we saw a little white calabash, filled with boiled eggs immersed in palm oil. The boiled eggs were seven in number. Near the calabash also were seven one-kobo coins equally splashed red with palm oil. We knew it was a sacrifice somebody had brought to the streamside, but we didn’t know then why exactly people make sacrifices. We had heard in many folktales that brave daredevils ate sacrifices, so without any prodding we sat down on the muddy ground and began to eat the eggs. Perhaps it was because eating eggs was not something we did oftentimes. We had even forgotten that it was Ramadan and we were not even supposed to eat permissible foods let alone the impermissible. Eating the sacrificial eggs was like a sort of conquest to us, and we relished it.
After we had eaten the eggs, we took the seven kobo coins. We washed away the oil stains in the stream, and then we had a quick bath. We sped away to Mama Alila, where we bought seven wraps of moimoi, and ate them also with greater relish. We felt big; we felt like heroes, we felt satisfied. We had made good use of our plunders.
Towards afternoon on our way home, we visited our favourite old man on our street. He was a sort of grand uncle. We told him of our escapades with pride. The old man told us: “Never you do such again. Sacrifices are for vultures to eat and not for human beings. Perhaps the person who made that sacrifice has an illness or an affliction from which he seeks cure. You never know, you may take his affliction or sickness for yours. Such things happen…”
We looked at the man aghast. Our initial pride of conquest oozed out and we became downcast. But the old man comforted us with his next pronouncement — a piece of advice. “Just go and drink plenty of water and get your insides flushed of the eggs and the moimoi before two days elapse — and then, you have nothing to worry about again,”
We did as the old man directed.
But when Alani became mad fourteen years after we had eaten the sacrifice by the streamside, something told me he had taken the illness of the person who had made the sacrifice of boiled eggs and seven one-kobo coins. And twenty-five years after when I realised that despite all my strife and struggles I had made no progress in life, and I had been stomping from one failure to another, something told me I had taken his affliction as well. I had as a result offered many sacrifices in return to reverse the negative trend, but contrary had been the case. Many sacrifices were also offered for Alani by his parents when alive, but his madness was only waxing stronger and stronger instead of abating. Ten years ago, he left home and had never been seen until today by any relative. But where I saw him was not our town, it was the place of my sojourn, four hundred and fifty kilometres away from our place of birth.
There was not much I could do to help Alani. He was a mad man. Mad people are not supposed to be related to anyone; they are stigmatised people. Only a fool would come out and claim to be a cousin or a brother of a mad man. So, I couldn’t claim to be Alani’s cousin again. I couldn’t help him much either. If I were to be rich and a lord of my home, I could have taken him home for an onward transfer to a psychiatrist’s, but I occupied only a very insignificant second slot in my home. Moreover, my home was neither a rich nor an expansive one, just two rooms, plus a bathroom and a kitchen. Where would I keep a raving mad man? And even, how would I take a mad man home to my delectable Juliana and tell her brazenly — This is my cousin? My dear wife would be stupefied beyond words or action. She wouldn’t know what to do at that very moment to a stupid old man like me whom she had taken out of the cold to clothe and feed and made proud. I dared not and I didn’t. I would never dream of troubling her so much. I loved Juliana to be always happy and not unhappy. I wanted her to be beautiful and fresh forever for me. The very reason I did things for her.
The second day I came to check on Alani, he was still there slumped in the same position he was the previous day. When I peered down at him now, he couldn’t even lift his head. His eyes were half closed. I was not even sure he saw me. He was obviously sick. I approached him and called:
He tried to open his eyes; they were struggling to open amidst thick mucus.
“I bring some food for you.” I dropped a pack containing a loaf of bread, a piece of egg roll and a sachet of water, and hurried on. When I was returning two hours after, two straying goats were feeding on the food I brought him. He had not bothered to eat. He must have been terribly sick. But there was no one to take care of him. No one to buy him drugs, no one to take him to the hospital and no one to urge him to eat like people urge their sick ones. I was his nearest relation around, the one most entitled to do things for him, but I couldn’t do anything to help him now. I could not even lay a claim to him. I had to go away and leave him alone. I stood by his side and looked at the legion of people hurrying by. They would cast a brief look of concern at him and continue on their way. No one showed any intention of helping him. Perhaps it was not wise to help unknown people, especially mad ones. If one took him to the hospital, one would have to pay his bills, stay with him, run necessary errands and give needed support to the nurses. I wished there were free asylums where he could be taken, but there were none. The mad man is always on his own, given to his own devices, despite the fact that he knows next to nothing about his own reality.
The following day when I passed by, Alani was still in the same position. I called his name with reverence and apprehension, perhaps because I didn’t want others to hear me. But there was no response. I bent down and shook his leg. He was dead. He was stiff. I shook my head. I shed hot tears and passed on. He could have been my dead, but as he was a mad man, he was nobody’s dead.
Image: Alex Iby on Unsplash (Modified)