And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they [were], should be fulfilled. (Revelation 6:11)
Only a few can actually remember what year the crippled, drunk, clothes-thieving, and conceptive Fali came to settle in Àpáta. Back then, she was welcomed in the apathetic manner many urban dwellers welcomed migrating birds or nomads. But unlike the peripatetic seeking pasture in different lands, she had pitched her tent in the town’s motor park and later built her home on a dunghill.
No one likes to see the shade of human life she represented. The world dreads it yet makes fun of the expressions of this deviance. It is mind-boggling—the mixed emotive reactions in people. How one pokes fun at what they never pray to become. Fali lived in a world of her own – a parallel world with no partitioning wall – where those on each side of the nonexistent divide can peep at one another daily but share the same gifts of air and rain and sunshine and lebensraum. Little is done to call back or wake those lost in the delusive world Fali lived in. In the opinion of many, this is the responsibility of the higher powers. Powers which unfortunately are too busy eating the good of the land and have become numb to the feeling of humaneness or perhaps feel it is outside the aegis of their offices to reach out to seek the redemption of these lost ones. Or at least shield them from the reproach and vulnerability of their fate. Well, isn’t it a general belief that an affliction of this kind is beyond the ordinary?
This is peculiar to many parts of Nigeria where the sane and the insane mix freely. Where the Gadarene demoniac leaves the solitary world of tombs to live out his days ensconced in estates amongst miracle-working but cold-eyed Nazarenes.
Fali had slipped into the metropolis twenty years ago during the long rains. From her demeanor to people, she might have been another vagrant who had travelled miles from the surrounding country villages to seek work. She was dirty and carried a small bundle on her head and ambulated around the town, begging for food and drink or money to buy them for herself. This was not strange as a number of paupers and sloths earn their living through alms. Fali had lingered around the major motor park, sleeping in one of the grounded buses until an incident placed her in the file of most infamous people to ever have walked the town.
It had rained heavily and people had trickled out of their homes and hiding places to resume the harried afternoon hustle. Returning home from school, children had flooded the streets too, some taking care to walk around rainwater that had collected on the sidewalks while some adventurous ones jumped into them, splashing the muddy water all over their feet and shorts and skirts and satchels. Vehicles speeding into the horizon had joined in this sport, their wheels jetting water on other vehicles and passersby. Stylish fellows straining to keep themselves dry, but having been washed all over, had erupted in anger, a number throwing all caution to the wind and chasing after these vehicles, swearing and invoking the gods of vengeance on the careless drivers.
“May Ògún lock your engine, you useless man!” A woman cursed, spreading her palm in the direction of a bus.
“May you lose all you should bring home tonight to robbers, Olóríburúkú.” Another shouted, brushing the wetness from her permed hair.
“Sorry o, my sister.” A middle-aged woman stopped to assess the damage.
“Every right-thinking man knows he should slow down when driving through wet roads. Why the hurry?”
“Maybe he is hurrying to his death. You never know the drums some witch in his village is beating into his ears.” The second woman laughed at her own dark joke.
The first woman, too drenched to be amused, bent to squeeze water from the hem of her long skirt.
“It’s not his fault though. It’s the fault of our corrupt leaders’ neglected duty. If we had good roads and a proper drainage, the roads wouldn’t be flooded like this.” The second woman offered a rag.
“Are you a wife of a commercial driver?” The first woman looked up, eyeing the outstretched rag as if it was a bribe from the other woman.
“I don’t get your point. OK tell me.” She gave a beckoning gesticulation.
“Is it the government who says if you are a driver, you must speed on a wet or flooded road? Is it? Is it the government who steered that idiot’s brains this way and that,” she unbent her frame and turned an invisible wheel clockwise and anticlockwise, “and forced him to spray water on everyone just because he is behind a wheel and we are the unprivileged ones who walk? We Nigerians love blaming our misdeeds on the government.”
Meanwhile, somewhere in town, a pool almost as wide as a river had formed at the exit of the walled precincts of the motor park. On rainy days and extending till the days it took the sun to lap up all the water in this pool, buses coming out of the park wetted their wheels in it, leaving a muddy trail on the dry asphalt as they joined other vehicles on the highway. It was in the direction of this pool that all eyes passing this point were pulled as they beheld the unspeakable. A woman, naked as a jaybird, squatted, bathing in it. It was Fali. Her wet dark skin shone in the sun like the skin of a black mamba that had just sloughed. Her breasts, firm and upright, danced with alluring ecstasy as her body shook with each touch of water. Fali could have passed for a model posing for a nude photo session in a river. Whenever she stood or bent, she held the eyes of thugs at the motor park spellbound as her round fleshy buttocks fluttered between wicked tempting postures many men fantasize.
The rushing benumbed world had slowed down during those moments. School children who had never seen such an abomination publicly displayed, covered their faces with their hands yet peeped from the spaces between fingers. Moving buses on the highway had braked and crawled past like a child tiptoeing to his room after stealing a piece of meat from his mother’s pot. Thugs, yelling for passengers had watched from the corners of their eyes while prospective passengers passed before them. A circus could not have arrested the attention of the people more.
“Ìkúnlẹ̀ abiyamọ o. This is the work of powerful witchcraft,” an elderly woman waiting to board an Ìbàdàn-bound bus wailed, placing her hands on her head.
“What could she have sown to have reaped such utter shame? Our people can be wicked!” Another onlooker said, shaking her head.
“So young, so young to spend the rest of her life this way,” a bespectacled man chimed in.
“Is she from this town?” A young lady asked.
“I don’t think so,” a thug with bloodshot eyes answered and yelled, “One more passenger! Ìbàdàn straight!”
He turned to the little group waiting to board the bus and added in a husky voice.
“She’s been sleeping here for the past three days. This one is fresh from the tether . . . Ìbàdàn, one more! Ìbàdàn, one more!”
He yelled again and rushed to grab the wrist of a young man and pulled him towards the waiting bus.
“I was here two days ago and I remember giving this woman some money. She had come around to beg and nothing from her words or behavior showed she was insane.” The young lady spoke again.
“Perhaps what you saw two days ago was stage one. This is the second stage. I hope a third isn’t coming.” The thug grinned.
“Ìyá mi…” he faced the elderly woman.
“Is it not you, our mothers, who taught us that death is better than shame? So, if I should work out a little logic here, would it be wrong to conclude that merciless enemies who wish to strike hard will first release one to a dreaded shame before finishing it all off with death? It is what I can do.”
He beat his chest and was off again yelling ‘Ìbàdàn, one more!’
“So, penury is stage one; madness, stage two; and death, some stage three—the final blow; the coup de grâce?” The bespectacled man muttered to himself meditatively, a slight tremor in his voice.
“In most cases, they are not the ones to give death,” the elderly woman began sinisterly. “They allow fate to work this out but ensure the toga of woe and shame is never removed from the body of their victim. And woe betides anyone who attempts to free her from her chains. They shift the war to such.”
All eyes turned to the elderly woman as she poured the words out. A quiet descended on the little group. It seemed the revelation was deep enough to ponder upon.
How had these people known about this stage one, two and three? The bespectacled man thought.
Who knows the deeds of those in the dark so much if they are truly in the light?
He turned towards the elderly woman and thought he saw what looked like a witch in her face. He felt it would be safer if he changed buses. After all, he was not in a hurry.
The incident had confirmed to all that the new vagrant was insane. And she was treated as such. Whenever she begged for alms, people would either toss some money at her or find a whip and chase her away. For a while, she wore her torn dirty clothes about and when she had the chance to wash she would, but mostly with water left behind by rain. Soon everyone had come to know her as the neat lunatic who begged for food or drink or clothes or stole them from clotheslines to replace her old and torn ones.
The harmattan season happened to be worse for Fali. She would walk to a river eight miles from the town to wash her body and clothes and try on clothes left to dry on rocks near the river by people from a nearby village. She would stroll quietly through town, her bundle – now growing larger with stolen clothes – balanced on her head. Soon, over the months, a new Fali stepped out to the people. Perhaps this was another stage between number one and the finale. For reasons best explained by lunacy, she would throw tantrums or mutter to herself all day or act a drama to an audience invisible to onlookers who didn’t mind stopping to watch her for respite or beat her to call her to order when it all became too wild.
It seemed Fali was to suffer many stages of shame. For as soon as stage three started, stage four slipped in. Liquor. It had taken a while for people to notice some of her musings, and display of madness might be caused by tipsiness. The day would break to find her lying somewhere in town, mostly by the roadside, sleeping heavily and even snoring—a bottle of beer or liquor lying by her side. It wasn’t clear initially how she always got the drinks. Who in the world would be wicked enough to sell alcohol to a lunatic? It was unheard of for a lunatic to stagger about like a drunk. Everyone secretly admired how they themselves were always strong and healthy, although they fed on filth. It seemed microbes sought to ravage the sane to prove that life had its mysteries. And the better they embraced these mysteries the better it would be for the reputation of all that is reckoned mysterious. Yet, all that news of a drinking lunatic did was only to tickle the people to laughter. If a sane man became insane while his intoxication lasted, how do we picture a lunatic displaying madness while inebriated? It was all funny. And whenever the people saw Fali lying precariously by the roadside, they would regard her either with mirth or pity.
Soon it became clear who drugged Fali with alcohol. Seven months after she’d arrived in Àpáta, it became news that the new lunatic had become pregnant. By this time, she had stopped sleeping at the motor park and had started spending more time at the dunghill around the Post Office. It didn’t make any sense to the people. The neat lunatic spending days at a dunghill? She had also stopped carrying her load about, which now permanently sat in the mighty shade of a mango tree there. The people suspected who might be responsible for the pregnancy. They were sure those who fed her with alcohol had been the one who slept with her. They knew who these lowlifes could be. They knew they couldn’t be different from those motor park thugs with bloodshot eyes who watched pretentiously each time she bathed in a pool. They knew one of those bastards had fathered another bastard through the young vulnerable lunatic with a tempting body.
Yet Fali carried on, spending time to rest her fattening body under the shade of the mango tree and walking around whenever she was hungry. It seemed sometimes, she came to her senses and seeing her sorry state, would beg for liquor to obliterate the memory of her condition before her insanity overtook her again. Hours as these brought out the humanity in some and many women would weep with her as she wailed, asking where she was and how she became pregnant. People would gather around her and ask if she remembered anything from her past. But all she ever remembered was her name, Fali, and the babel of voices in her head and her growing dependence on alcohol. Any other thing apart from these met with blankness.
And so, the cycle continued. Whenever Fali was found lying anywhere in town completely drunk, another pregnancy was in the offing. And when she gave birth, nuns from Our Lady of Fatima Orphanage with their conspicuous habits and wimples would come with a jeep from Ìbàdàn and make away with her baby before she fed it with too much filth from the dunghill. Fali would cry for days on end and fight whoever visited the dunghill for whatever reasons. The guttersnipes who thrived partially on the mango tree whose shade was Fali’s home would make a counterattack though, stoning her until she ran away and cursed and whined and barked from a safe distance.
With her baby gone, her drinking returned, and of course the inebriation, bathing in muddy pools, clothes pilfering, and the beatings that came with it when she was caught. No one ever caught her with those who fathered her babies. Or perhaps they felt it was no use talking about their discovery. No one, too, knew where it was done. It was shameful to imagine anyone could come by night with a bottle of alcohol to lie with a lunatic. And on a dunghill at that! But wherever it was anyone imagined the act was done, one thing was obvious to the people. It wasn’t Fali alone who was insane. Many other lunatics walked the streets posing as sane while it was yet daylight. The nights unleashed their depravity.
Fifteen years after Fali had come to town, she got a new companion. Perhaps the demons in the world on the other side had tired of repeating the stages of affliction in just one woman and needed a new body. Or perhaps, they were sympathetic to Fali’s loneliness and sought to bring her another of her kind.
A young schoolteacher had married and just two weeks into her new life, had lost her police officer husband to a shootout with robbers at Ìbàdàn. The news was more biting when one considered that it was his first day at work after their wedding, and the only officer to fall during the encounter. The young wife was devastated, which did not come in the form of great wailing and voluminous tears and a fusillade of curses on those who had sunk her sun before it rose. She had received the news with silence. A strange cold silence. Whatever reaction anyone expected from her was made only with a blank stare. At a time, she spoke only to complain of an intense headache and asked for some drugs. She would not sleep. She would not talk. She ate only when food was forced down her throat. And the drugs to cure her headaches and make her sleep seemed not to be working. Soon it was clear enough a disaster was looming. The new wife had stopped staring blankly. Her eyes had started roving wildly, a witless smile fixed all day on her countenance. All day she was like that—forgetting herself, lost in a dreamy world that was fast abducting her from her people. Whenever she did speak, it was to beg that the people do something to the voices in her head.
Then the bouts of frenzy had come in a quick succession and her people, exasperated, had asked that they take her away from Ìbàdàn to her hometown Àpáta to consult native doctors who specialized in lunacy. All had tried. But the situation worsened. The voices in her head had broken through to her mouth. They now dictated what she said and how she acted. Then one day, she had found her way out of the room she was locked in and walked the streets to deliver a message the voices in her head had for the people. She was brought home and tethered like a goat. She broke loose again and again and again until her people gave up; feeling strongly that the enemy who had orchestrated the death of the husband had tampered with the wife’s mind too. No one seemed to remember that her grandmother had suffered from a psychotic disorder throughout her lifetime.
Fali and Teacher had their different turfs. It was hard to tell if the two ever met and regarded each other as the same kind. While Fali held the dunghill to the north of the Post Office, Teacher held the boulders at the back of the Police Station. Perhaps the station brought to her memories of her husband. Perhaps the boulders offered her an asylum from the wicked world. It was hard to tell. Three or four officers in the station knew her. One had been her husband’s classmate at the Police College. Another was even at her wedding. They were all kind to her and brought her food and clothing. And whenever it threatened to rain heavily, one or two would go over to tell her she was free to come stay on the corridor till the storm passed.
Fali had been hit by a car and had become crippled before Teacher joined her on the streets. It was a miracle how she survived. She had crawled with a supernatural fortitude to the dunghill and lay there, feeding on ripe mangoes that dropped into her home. The people whose houses were not far from the dunghill seemed only to be concerned about one thing—how to get rid of her body before it stank. But the world had been stupefied when Fali returned to the streets, crawling on her buttocks towards the park to beg for money. She had given herself to liquor more than ever and by now had a number of bootleggers who sold her the stuff out of pity or for the money.
Last week the local council was called to take away the bloating corpse of a lunatic on a dunghill before its rotting smell became unbearable. It had taken three days for the council to respond and instead of taking the corpse away, had burnt it on the hill. The smoke from Fali’s lifeless body, like a sacrifice rejected by God, had refused to climb up to the sky but hung low on the dunghill and drifted across the road.
Image: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (modified)