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Ike Okonta: Kafka in Little Bassa

Sitting now in Papa’s Tavern with a glass of Star beer, he felt the delicious taste of the fish stew on his tongue again and smiled. He wished the barman would play Cardinal Rex Lawson for him, just this once. Rex Lawson had died shortly after the Civil War ended. People said he died of a broken heart; that he lost so many of his friends in the muddy trenches of Abagana, Onitsha and Port Harcourt that he saw no point in living any longer. Ajambene did not really know. All he knew was that Cardinal Rex Lawson was a great musician and that the music stopped when childhood friends took up arms and began to slaughter each other over something that was still not clear to him.

Boniface came in through the door. A smile was spread all over his dark podgy face.

Ajambene saw the smile of self-satisfaction as he drew out the chair opposite and knew he had been beating his wife again. Boniface beat his wife every night. Sometimes her screams would keep the whole compound awake till the early hours of the morning. Once Ajambene had asked him why he beat his wife all the time and Boniface had angrily retorted, ‘You don’t have a wife of your own so you will never understand.’ But he liked Boniface in spite of his strange behaviour because he felt he was the only man in the compound who understood him.

Boniface called the barman in a loud voice. ‘Dis Oga said you should bring me one Star. Very cold one. And bring it quick-quick.’

The barman looked at Ajambene for confirmation.

Ajambene growled at him, ‘You heard him, didn’t you?’ He had never liked the young man, he and the Fuji music he played at high pitch.

The barman brought the beer on a tray. Boniface ignored the glass and the opener beside it and uncapped the bottle with his huge yellowish teeth, jerking his head violently. A spurt of foamy liquid splashed into his face and he laughed loudly. He stuck out his tongue to catch the beer as it trailed down his cheeks. Then he raised the bottle and drank thirstily. He set the bottle down on the table with a loud thud and smacked his lips contentedly.

‘The man who invented beer must have been a happy man, eh Mr. Bachelor?’ He called Ajambene Mr. Bachelor only when he was in a happy mood.

Ajambene began to ask him if he had been beating his wife again and then stopped. ‘So how is the country, eh?’

Boniface laughed. ‘Do you still call this a country? Everything don scatter, my brother.’ He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. ‘Everything don scatter. Only yesterday the Minister of Environment was saying over the radio that the country is broke and that rats have eaten all the money in the Central Bank.’

Ajambene jerked up. He stared at Boniface suspiciously. ‘Rats? Rats have eaten their way into the Central Bank, eh?’

Boniface nodded. ‘The Minister said so. He said the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council has decided to launch an all-out war against the vile creatures. General Bello will launch a new crusade, War Against Rats or WAR for short, on Saturday.’ He took another gulp of beer and rolled it noisily in his mouth. His eyes were twinkling now. ‘But the question is, which rats is the Minister talking about – the rats in army uniform who are chopping all the country’s money or the ordinary rats you and I see everywhere in Little Bassa… the kind you hunt in your room every night.’

‘Of course, he is talking about house rats,’ Ajambene said quickly. ‘They are far more dangerous than the soldiers. You just cannot begin to estimate how…I think the Minister of Environment is right. I have always said it. Rats and cockroaches are the real cause of the nation’s problems. They must be destroyed. I welcome the government as my comrade-in-arms in the war against rats which I, King Ajambene started a long time ago.’

‘But what about General Bello and his soldiers who steal millions of Naira every day? Aren’t they more dangerous than the house rats? What about them, eh?’

Boniface did not know whether to laugh or get angry with his friend. Akanni and all the other people of the compound thought he was a strange old man and that he was steadily slipping into insanity. Ajambene wore the same old funny-looking long black coat to work every morning, its enormous lapels flapping in the air like some strange pre-historic bird as he marched resolutely to the bus stop. He hardly spoke to anyone, and did not acknowledge greetings, not even from children. Ajambene had a strange way of walking down the corridor, hitting the ground hard with the heels of his shoes as though he were a soldier on parade, his eyes fixed straight ahead. He barged into people but did not stop to apologise. When his shoes came in contact with the enamel buckets and basins that lined both sides of the narrow corridor he simply kicked them out of his way. His wife and the other women of the compound had complained that the crazy old man who walked like a soldier was wrecking their utensils. He conferred with the other men and they spoke with Ajambene but he merely stared at them and went on marching up and down the corridor like a recently demobilised soldier.

Then one evening they heard strange noises coming from Ajambene’s room. It was as though the old man was fighting with ten armed robbers. They heard loud screams and curses and the sound of flying missiles crashing into fragile plates and glasses and things. It became a nightly affair. Sometimes the racket went on till the early hours of the morning. Nobody in the compound knew what to make of the strange noise coming from Ajambene’s room every night, least of all Akanni who lived in the adjacent room with his wife and seven children. Akanni complained to the landlord that Ajambene kept his wife and children awake every night and that the old man practiced witchcraft in his room. The landlord called Ajambene and told him the complaints he had heard. Ajambene stared at him with his strange glittering eyes and mumbled something about rats and cockroaches and marched away.

Then one day Ajambene returned from work and began to tell everybody about the rats and cockroaches that were eating up all the country’s wealth and that he Ajambene was about to embark on a project that would rid the entire country of the pests. At first people thought he meant General Bello and his soldiers who everybody knew were stealing the country’s money, but Ajambene returned from work the following evening and showed everybody a small bottle which he claimed contained a deadly poison which could kill all the rats and cockroaches in the world.

Ajambene went to bed early that evening. Everybody expected the usual racket to commence. Akanni and the other men of the compound who were chatting in front of the house, complaining about the rising price of garri, dispersed and went back to their rooms. There was quiet. The compound seemed to have settled down for the night. Then suddenly there was a loud noise and Ajambene’s door was violently flung open. The few who were quick to come out of their rooms saw Ajambene flying down the corridor, the tails of his long black coat flapping wildly like a scarecrow caught in a whirlwind. In an instant he disappeared down the street. Nobody knew where he went. He did not return to the compound that night. But he was back again the following evening, brandishing yet another packet of rat poison and eulogising its destructive powers. Ajambene became the standing joke of the compound. The children began to call him the Expert Hunter of Rats and Cockroaches. Strangely, Ajambene did not seem to mind. Every evening saw him with another brand of rat poison.

Boniface looked at the man sitting opposite him. Of late Ajambene had taken to telling anyone who bothered to listen to him at Papa’s Tavern about a big rat he had named General and that both of them were locked in a life and death battle for control of his ‘Palace.’ He did not know what to make of this strange story. Ajambene also quarreled with Akanni every evening. He would bang violently on Akanni’s door and shout at him and then go into his room and slam the door so violently the walls of the house shook. Akanni firmly believed that Ajambene had become insane and that it was only a matter of time before he would have to be forcibly confined. ‘The old man don craze,’ Akanni said one evening as they were chatting in front of the compound. ‘Na only madman dey fight with rat and kokroch for him room every night.’

But he did not think Ajambene was insane. It was true that he found his ‘crusade’ against rats and cockroaches a little strange, but that was the only aspect of the old man’s life that seemed out of joint. He still went to work every morning like clock-work, paid his rent regularly and did not behave differently from other people in the street. True, Ajambene no longer spoke to anybody and had chosen to lord it over all the rats and cockroaches in the neigbourhood but he did not really see anything wrong in that. For all he knew the old man could well be having a private joke at the expense of them all.

But Ajambene had not always been like this. He remembered that when he came to live in the compound so many years ago, around the time General Bello seized power in a bloody coup, Ajambene was a jolly easy-going man with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He made fun of everything and everybody, most of all the military rulers who made long speeches in bad English in the radio every morning and did not know the first thing about running the country. Ajambene would come back from work and head for Papa’s Tavern and tell everybody how the new Minister of National Planning, Brigadier Yoli Yoli would sleep in the office all morning after his nightly carousals in beer parlours and nightclubs and never read memos because his perennial hangovers wouldn’t let him but would bellow for the Permanent Secretary in his loud parade-ground voice, ‘Fament Sektri! Fament Sektri!’ and fling the memo at him and mutter something about bloody civilians and promptly go back to sleep. Ajambene would pause at this point and imitate Brigadier Yoli Yoli’s loud snores and the entire bar would crack up with laughter. Then Ajambene would shake his head in mock regret and repeat his favourite phrase: ‘Dis na the new Nigeria. Everything don change.’

One afternoon Boniface went to Welekende’s shop to cut his hair and the conversation drifted to Ajambene. Welekende the barber, small and wiry with his full head of cotton-white hair was a permanent feature of Yala Street, a part of the landscape, just like the old Post Office with its dome roof and bright red windows. Welekende had fought in the Hitler war, or so he claimed, and liked narrating tales of his exploits and adventures in Burma where, according to him, he first made love to a white woman. There was always a crowd in Welekende’s shop whenever you went there: Molue and danfo drivers, factory labourers, roadside mechanics, office clerks, motor park touts and unemployed youths and pickpockets who were always to be found wherever there was a sizeable crowd.

On this Saturday afternoon Welekende was telling his customers about Ajambene. He had already gone half-way when Boniface walked in: ‘…yes, my brother. Na so life be. But he is not as old as he looks. I know him very well. He was a happy young man when he came to live in this quarter. He was living in Simpson Street then. He had the latest record-changer and a chain of girlfriends. I even heard he was studying to become a lawyer. Then the war came and he fled to his village in the east. I think it was the war that killed him. People said he lost his entire family in the war. Federal troops came to his village and shot everybody, including goats and sheep and chicken. When I saw him after the war carrying loads in the Central Market, I was shocked. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that this was a living-dead man.’ A long pause. Welekende shakes his head sadly. He flicks away an imaginary speck of hair on his gown. Then his little twinkling eyes brightens again as he launches into the story of Sergeant Bala and how he was caught making love to his wife’s junior sister in the latrine.

When Boniface returned to the compound later in the day, he went to Ajambene’s room and asked him jokingly to tell him about his Civil War experiences. He immediately regretted the joke. A look of raw pain jumped into Ajambene’s eyes. For a moment he looked as though he was going to hit him. Then he smiled a strange smile and said coldly: ‘Go and wake up the three million dead and ask them to tell you about the civil war.’ Ajambene did not speak to him for several months after that.

Another time, when they were drinking a bottle of palmwine Ajambene had brought from the office, Boniface had asked him why he never married. Ajambene was silent for a long moment, as though pondering the question in his mind. Then he smiled the strange smile again and said, ‘Dis na new Nigeria. Everything don change.’

Boniface drained his bottle. Then he looked at Ajambene. ‘Seriously speaking, do you think killing all the rats in our rooms will solve the country’s problems as the Minister of Environment seem to suggest?’

‘It wasn’t the minister’s idea,’ Ajambene said angrily. ‘It was my idea from the very beginning. The government stole it from me. Everybody knows I am the King of Rats and Cockroaches. I am a king in disguise. I know the secret of the wealth and poverty of nations.’ He saw the smile of amusement on Boniface’s face and he burst out angrily. ‘Yes, I know nobody believes me – even you my friend. You think I am mad. Everybody thinks Ajambene is mad. But I know I am not mad. I am the King of Rats and Cockroaches. But they have become disobedient. They have become greedy and corrupt and so I, King Ajambene have decreed their death so my Kingdom will be rich and happy again!’

Then he started, suddenly remembering the bottle of rat poison he had hurled to the floor and whose contents had filled the room like red vapour. He sprang to his feet and ran into the street. He heard Boniface and the barman shouting his name but he ignored them. He ran all the way to the compound, anxious to get to the room and see what wonders the potent rat poison had performed while he was away. As he jumped over the gutter near the front door he saw a big rat leap out of the doorway into the street. He looked like General. Ajambene shouted and bounded after him.

They ran down the long winding street. A speeding Danfo suddenly appeared out of nowhere, its horn screaming. For a moment Ajambene thought he was going to be knocked down. He heard loud shouts all around him. He closed his eyes. Then he felt a great rush of air and saw himself flying in the air. When he opened his eyes again, he was lying in the dust on the other side of the road. The danfo was gone.

Gingerly, he got to his feet. His long black coat was covered with dust but he was otherwise unhurt. People had gathered around him, shouting and talking excitedly. He pushed them out of his way and looked around him. But General had disappeared. Then he saw him just ahead, his sleek furry coat a blur in the street light. Ajambene shouted and threw himself at him but General leaped over the gutter and disappeared into a doorway.

Panting and covered with dust he pulled himself up and walked up to a group of men in front of the house. There were about five of them and they were sitting on a raffia mat and playing a game of cards. A jerrycan of palmwine stood in the centre and they were laughing and shouting as they drank. One of them, a short man with a broad hairy chest and muscular arms got up as he approached. Ajambene ignored him and tried to walk to the door but the man barred his way.

‘Give way,’ he said calmly. ‘I am King Ajambene.’

‘And I am the landlord of this house. What do you want?’

‘General. Just bring him out and we will go away.’

‘Who is General? We haven’t seen any soldier here.’

Ajambene started in surprise. ‘But General is not a soldier. He is a big rat. I have decreed his death. I want to execute him.’

The man shrugged. ‘That is your own wahalla.’

‘Then let me pass. I want to capture General alive.’

Again he made to walk to the door but the man pushed him back. ‘I don tell you! Soldiers no dey for dis house!’ He pushed Ajambene again, violently. Ajambene staggered then fell to the ground. He heard laughter all around him.

He got painfully to his feet. His whole body ached.

A small crowd had gathered. They were all laughing and making fun of him. He looked at them and shook his head in amazement. What was there to laugh about?

As he turned and began to walk back to Papa’s Tavern, their laughter still ringing in his ears, Ajambene shook his head again. They simply did not understand.


Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

Ike Okonta
Ike Okonta
Ike Okonta was a founding member of The News and Tempo, two newsmagazines that hounded (and were in turn persecuted by) the Military in Nigeria until they scurried shamefacedly out of power. Okonta, a much published activist (human and environmental) is currently at Oxford doing a study of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Struggle. Okonta is a journalist of vast talents and experience and his highly crafted pieces always make exciting reading. A teller of stories, he won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prose Prize in 1998.


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