“Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” –Matthew 23: 12.
A German couple, enamoured of hiking, travelled to Nepal. They ran into an Asian capitalist who shared the same passion. Back in their hotel, they sat around a table to eat together and talk. They talked about many things, but what the Germans took home was what the Asian had said about poverty in his home country: it was so harsh that a truck went around picking corpses of poor people that had died of raw hunger the past night. That revelation gave the Germans a hint on what to do with the mountain of Deutschmarks they had heaped over a long period of hard work. It was so staggering that, if they had to live for a million years, they wouldn’t be able to chop it down. A global charity organisation was born.
When the foundation soared around the world, looking for stretches of poverty on which to land, long stretches were also sighted in Nigeria.
The first day I resumed work, I was briefed by my immediate boss.
“Ah, what is that your name again? It is a bit hard to remember.”
I smiled and answered: “Igeh Rugunto.”
“What does it mean?” he asked, curious.
“Igeh means locust, while Rugunto means a refuse dump,” I explained.
“What! Why would someone be given any of these names?”
“Well, some kids were born in the year of the locust invasion. As for Rugunto, a child could be so named if his mum gave birth to kids that never survived. In that circumstance, it will be a huge waste to give such a baby a beautiful name.”
“Wow,” he exclaimed. “Now, we get to business.” This time, his voice was soft. “Do you remember the motto of Butterfly?”
“Love the World,” I answered.
“Correct. Here at Butterfly, we attach a lot of importance to this motto. People must see this love radiating from your words or silence. They must see it in your actions and procrastinations. Without these poor people, we would be working here, serving ghosts. So, wherever you find yourself working for Butterfly, remember it.”
At the car park, there were the latest in the series from Bavaria Motor Works. Initially, I thought visitors from the head office in Berlin were being hosted at the Jos office. I was to find out that those were actually official vehicles used by the men and women who worked at the Jos branch of Butterfly. It felt like a dream when, two weeks later, I was assigned mine.
Every bit of item in our offices, from the electrical fittings to the computers and printers, were as fresh as leaves blossoming from an unwrapping bud.
I was housed in downtown Rayfield, sharing a fence with an England-based professional footballer. The wretched Nigerians we helped came from the far side of town, where the streets were so slim that cars couldn’t drive through; where the streets taper and end like a tail, the awnings so frail they had to be stabilized by huge stones to prevent strong winds from pulling and escaping with them.
In the house where I was raised, Mama had designed a meal plan. It was strictly a 0-1-1 meal plan: only lunch and supper were served. Working at Butterfly, I didn’t only reclaim my breakfast –there was always something in-between the meals, something my university professor called “bridges.” I spent freely, without a saving plan. Still, my pocket was always full by the time my mobile trilled, notifying me that another salary had been paid.
I sat in my gaudy sitting room, watching a show named Twilight News. It was the day of the swearing-in, with snippets of footages from the event that ushered in the new Plateau State Government. The human-size images from the flat-screen LG TV made it seem like the new Governor was talking to me directly, as he gave his speech. As it was every four years, the speech was a haunting stereotype: “we will build your roads. Juice, tea and akamu will flow from taps. My children and yours will sit in the same classroom. I’ll forfeit a portion of my monthly pay. Farmers will get fertilizers at a generous rate. Just wait and see.” The mundane promises, that everyone knew were empty, turned me off. I thought of better things to do, one of which was planning for my assignment at Mista’ali, the next day. I reached for my grip at the other end of the sofa. It was coated with shimmering black leather and quivered blissfully when the catches were released. It locked with an equally thrilling click.
Sorting through the documents, I ran into my job offer. I looked at the letter with deep admiration. My face must have brightened with joy, looking at the mail that changed my life in such a profound way. The sophistication of Butterfly radiated from the printed A4 document. A fascinating company logo was at the top left-hand corner. It was in a uniform blue, but appealing at the same time. There were Butterfly’s addresses, local and international, printed in exotic font. The last two words of the global head office’s address were: “Berlin, Germany.” The name, “Berlin” brought to my mind the thought of the Berlin Wall and what it meant. It was unthinkable that even European nations as strong as Germany couldn’t escape the communist invasion when it broke loose. It seemed to me that, even though the wall eventually collapsed, the resulting capitalism was only on paper –the generosity of Butterfly suggested communism ran in the veins of Berliners.
Early the next day, I was on my way to see a set of beneficiaries of our grants, but I had to get briefed at the office. I also needed to take with me an aide. The aide would help with the organization of the meeting venue and take photographs. I wore an immaculate suit. It was one I had ordered online from a French boutique. It made me look like Wesley Snipes, starring in New Jack City. My head was capped with a thick mass of manicured hair, my eyes blindfolded by a dark scary pair of sunshade glasses. I had the idea that the goggles violated the Butterfly’s core principle, but I knew I would take them off when I arrived at the office.
Even though the traffic was dense, it flowed. The airtight window glasses protected me from a sea of stale fumes that had already displaced the fresh morning air to the fringes of town. Each time an extravagant car drove in the opposite direction, the calm in my heart was assaulted, but only fleetingly as I got pacified realizing their drivers felt threatened by the sight of my jeep as well. The fat on their cheeks either slumped suddenly, or the brilliance on their faces swiftly vanished, like a scene on a TV screen.
In the office, my immediate boss said there wasn’t anything other than what I had already known. Dagoi, a young introverted man, was already waiting. His balding head gleamed like the flashing light atop a police patrol van. He was dressed like someone who missed the seventies. With a strong rural voice, he greeted, “Good morning, sir.”
In the meeting at Mista’ali village, I wrestled with Butterfly’s motto. Many of the poor people we had come to help showed that enraging I-don’t-care shit. Some wore T-shirts with slackened necks on shorts that revealed chunky, crinose calves. As if that wasn’t costly enough, they talked and laughed aloud, as if they were in a beer parlour. It was cheeky, as if the monetary support they were to receive had been stolen from their ancestors. It continued until it got on my nerves. I couldn’t control myself anymore. Struggling to subdue my rage, I said calmly, “Gentlemen, can we be silent and orderly, please?” The silence that followed was only fleeting. Then the un-fenced laughter resumed again. I decided not to talk further, figuring that, at a point, my silence would speak to them. But I was wrong; the laughter seemed unending. When I finally talked again, it was to unleash and relieve myself of a rage that had climbed to the base of my neck. The tiles under my extravagant boots tremored, the window glasses rattled, and the ceiling fans spun faster. Everyone recoiled and froze. Dagoi, who sat beside me at the registration table, turned and spoke to me with his face: is your patience so fragile? I don’t expect this from you, especially considering our motto, which suggests we should show love.
Action is, indeed, louder than words –I got Dagoi’s message clearly.
I wouldn’t have believed the eruption of my anger would finally get the laughing folks to behave themselves –they had seemed like old dogs that couldn’t be swayed. For the rest of the event, everyone curled into a tiny shell. There was that remorseful look on the faces of the men and a see-what-you-have-done demeanour on the faces of the innocent women. I thought of Butterfly’s motto, Love the World. But I also thought that, sometimes the world must learn to love itself, first.
On our way back, there was an irritating silence in the car. Dagoi had always been the reserved type. So, I wasn’t sure if his silence was a bit of his nature, or a reflection of his respect for me, or because he was still thinking about my unprofessional behaviour. There was no doubt he didn’t like it, but I wanted to know if he was done and over with it.
“What do you think of the behaviour of those people?” I asked.
“You mean the noisy people,” he asked, wriggling his shoulders to slacken the safety belt.
“Noise is always disruptive and counterproductive,” he said tersely.
I wasn’t too surprised –reserved people always don’t talk much. I tried to rationalize my action further.
“You know, they are poor people we had come to help. But I also think that Butterfly deserves some respect from them. But they acted as if we had come to pay back money we owed.”
He said nothing.
At a road intersection, the traffic got heavy and slunk, giving hawkers the opportunity to approach the car windows. I don’t always buy from roadside hawkers, but in order to please Dagoi, I bought two sachets of Five Alive juice, one for me, the other for him.
“Oh, thank you, sir,” he said, after I had offered him one.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
Butterfly preferred giving its grants to people it was sure would put it to good use, people who had shown signs of hard work but couldn’t grow because the financial threshold they required couldn’t come. My immediate boss had told me about a woman he had seen frying akara on the roadside. He told me that, each time he passed, she was always there under the harsh sun, in the company of her numerous kids. He had thought that if there was anyone who deserved the mercy of Butterfly, it was people like her. Constantly thinking about her, he had pulled over one day and had a conversation with her. That was how he eventually directed me to go and meet with her to explore the possibility of extending Butterfly’s mercy to her.
I drove. Dagoi, who knew that part of Jos well, gave directions. We turned up at the location. It was a shanty area, a town on the slopes of a hill where land was free because wealthy people wouldn’t want to live there. Malnourished kids with bony heads, portly bellies, and mosquito legs, chased each other in baggy underpants.
The woman turned out to be a widow in her forties. She had a huge frying pan in which brown oil simmered from the torments of burning coal from beneath. I asked questions as to how she planned to use the grant to improve her life. I was simply going through the motion –we often gave, even when we weren’t satisfied with the answers.
After Dagoi had taken photographs, I dragged him across the road so he could take a photo of the dystopia beaming from the cramped homes and malnourished kids playing in front of them.
When we returned to our vehicle, I realized the jeep’s emblem had been sullied by a nasty oily smear. The only source of grease could have been the woman’s frying kits. It seemed like sabotage –what would have taken the woman or any of her dirty, starving souls that far? The BMW emblem, a hypnotic icon of blue and white quadrants framed by a dark band, symbolized the superior place of the BMW. It rhymed with my class. I hated people who don’t have pride. I hated them because they hated you the moment they realise your pride is towering. Sometimes, they went as far as spilling filthy liquids at your doorstep just to stain that snow-white pride. For a long time, I had been their victim, escaping only when I moved downtown, where they were so few they hadn’t any strength.
“Who did this?” I asked, pointing at the monogram.
“Who did what?” she asked.
She got up and paced towards the vehicle to see what I was referring to. But I felt that her action was just an act.
“I don’t know,” she said, after she had seen it.
I was sure the oily smear was not on the vehicle when I came.
“Did any of your kids get this close?” I asked, fuming.
“No,” she said.
By then, I had become tired of her ruse. I boiled inside, still recalling how I had suffered in the hands of people like her in the past. I took a few steps in the direction of the frying pan. Then it happened like a spark: my right foot swung, the tip of my Timberland boot picking the frying pan by its jaw. The grimed pan and its contents flew into the air and wobbled angrily. Akara was all over the place. Everyone got stained. If anger can be measured on a scale with ten as the highest score, I was now at nine. Inspecting the stain on my dress, I spread my hands out, as if wanting to embrace someone. I turned and looked at the woman, but there was nothing else I could do –I had done the worst.
By the time I had simmered down, I combed around for Dagoi. Perhaps he had gone to ease himself and would be back in seconds. I waited for a minute, then two, then three, then fifteen, but he still didn’t show up. I started feeling helpless. I turned around as if to ask the woman, who was now picking up and cleaning the things I had overturned. There was no way I could ask her any question after what I had done. I dialled his mobile number. A European female voice replied: The number you are trying to call is not available at the moment. Please, try again later. I knew he had a second line that isn’t in my phone book. I wanted to dial the office to ask for the number, but I thought against it. The office would ask what had gone wrong –we were supposed to be together.
After waiting for about two hours, I knew Dagoi had left. It must have been his protest against my violations of what Butterfly stood for. Distressed, I slothfully climbed into the vehicle and drove off, steering the elegant wheel in front of me and watching, through the spotless window, the men, women, and children on the borders of the street as if they were flies that should be swatted. They stood along the street perimeters, hands folded across their chests, watching the glossy, flawless body panel of the vehicle. I guessed the questions in their minds: who is this? Where is he coming from? Who is worthy of his visit in this town? Will we ever drive in this kind of vehicle?
I took a bend and drove through a small market, still swaggering in the way I steered the wheel and in the hint on my face. An old, seemingly starving woman emerged from nowhere. She suddenly broke out singing:
“Jesus is coming
Jesus is returning
Could be today, could be tomorrow
But he will surely return.”
The melody of her song was unambiguous, with a spontaneity suggesting a firm, unwavering belief that Jesus once lived and would surely return. She seemed like the kind of person who lived in a world where there was no mobile phone, no television, no cars, no deodorants… It was clear that, even though she was in this world, she was far away from it. If that song was ignited by the spectacle passing through her neighbourhood, it was her own cup of tea –I wasn’t in this world to sell peanuts.
The month had ended, and I was visiting Mum in Bassa. I did that every month-end.
Mum lived alone. Dad had died when I was in Primary Three. She had inherited nothing, other than the burden of raising me. She refused to get married. If there was any contract whose terms would mean giving away a bit of the time and love she had for me, she wasn’t interested. Despite the odds, I ended up with a university degree. She often said that surviving after Dad’s death was, in itself, a huge feat, and that a university degree against all the odds was a dreamlike bonus. She also often said that the sacrifice she made wasn’t because she hoped to make any personal gains. If there was any gain at all, it was merely the joy of sitting in heaven and watching an un-dimming joy on my face.
I drove Mum to a pharmaceutical store. We were there to buy insulin shots for her diabetes. It was diagnosed when I was in secondary school. It was why she broke off with the foods she loved the most. Though there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I joined her in avoiding those foods. It was what I had to give in return.
There was no feeling like driving with Mum in an extravagant jeep, a fragrant air billowing from a dashboard festooned with countless electronic gauges, seatbelts engaged, and the engine humming. I often wished it rained each time we drove. I would engage the rugged windscreen wipers, loving how they gathered raindrops towards the margin of the windscreen, where they spill down in terrace patterns.
“Are you still abstaining from salted foods,” Mum asked me.
“For where?” I had long stopped. “Sorry, Mum,” I said, feeling slightly ashamed.
“You don’t need to be sorry. I never asked you to avoid salted foods in the first place.”
We bought the drugs. We had been buying the drugs from that store for a decade and a half, so the manager had known me from when I was a kid. One day, when I drove Mum in that big car, his eyes widened in shock. Since then, he had resolved to treat me like I was older than him, bowing slightly when he greeted. Though he hadn’t much education, he had landed properties, cars and lots of cash in Access Bank, Zenith Bank, First Bank…
When I returned to Jos, my hubris returned with me.
A few months back, Butterfly had recruited a new set of staff –its operations were getting wider, embracing more people. Of the new staff, was Minchwe. She was in her early twenties, with a graceful skin tone. But the most striking thing about her was the timbre of her voice that made me feel she was a clone of Mum. Each time she walked past, the tentacles of my haughtiness felt restrained. I found myself greeting her first. This was despite her being one of the assistants who worked under people of my rank. One day, I reflexively called her “Mum.” When she asked why, I told her the truth. Since then she felt elated and tittered, each time I referred to her that way.
When the month of November ended, I didn’t go to Bassa to see Mum. I hadn’t any cogent excuse. I had all the time in the world and couldn’t explain why I did that. It may have been the magic of Minchwe. Instead, I transferred money to Mum’s Access Bank account so she could buy all she needed, including the drugs. I planned to go the following month. We would have all the time, celebrating Christmas together. But Mum called. She had gone to the drugstore, but the manager told her he’d exhausted his supply of the drug. Her instincts had told her that the drug hadn’t finished –there was a rare hint of frostiness in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Mum. It’s my fault,” I told her over the phone.
“It isn’t your fault. You mustn’t come to Bassa every month.”
“Have you tried other drugstores in Bassa?” I asked.
“I made sure I did that before calling you.”
“Is the condition getting worse?”
“Not really. I’m only making sure I stick to the doctor’s instructions.”
“I’ll have to look for it in Jos and find a way of sending it. I probably will have to use commercial bus drivers, who will call you when they get to Bassa. Sorry, Mum.”
“It’s alright. You don’t have to be sorry. Just make sure you send it.”
When I ended the phone conversation with Mum, it was 03: 00 pm. I left the office and drove fast to La Med Pharmacy. It was located at Secretariat Junction. At that time of the day, it was difficult to find a minibus or taxi travelling from Jos to Bassa. But the long luxury buses that only travelled by night would be at the park. I decided to send the drug through them so Mum would get it the following morning.
As I drove, I pulled out a handkerchief and started wiping out tears that streamed down my cheeks. It was my fault. Mum wasn’t aware exactly how it was my fault. I wasn’t guilty because of my failure to travel that month-end. She was right that I mustn’t travel home every month-end. She had said that her instinct told her the store had the drug, that there was something cold about the man’s reception. That explained it. About a week after my last visit to Bassa, I ran into the man in Jos. He obviously came to restock his store. They often buy from Jos. We were within a few metres of each other, but when he greeted, I acted like I had never seen him. Now, he has transferred the anger to Mum. It was unfair –she wasn’t the one he met in Jos! Plus, we paid for the drugs –they weren’t something he gave for free!
The next morning I wasn’t in a rush to know if Mum had received the drugs or not. If she gets it early enough, it would be at about 10:00 am. I got busy, working. By the time I pulled my attention from the stack of papers I was working on and turned my thoughts to Bassa, it was mid-day. Yet, Mum hasn’t called to inform me of her receipt of the drugs. I dialled her number. The number rang, but no one picked it. I dialled the driver I had sent, but I couldn’t get through. I spent the whole day trying the two lines. Mum’s line rang, but it was never answered. The driver’s line never rang at all.
I had closed for the day and was walking towards the car when I ran into Minchwe. I knew she would expect us to talk like we often did. I wasn’t in the mood for that. But there was no way I could pass without talking to her at all, despite knowing my pains showed in my eyes and she was going to see it. I decided to talk to her, but without stopping so that the conversation would be as brief as possible.
“Hi. I hope the day was fine?” I said, looking straight and avoiding her eyes. Before she could ask any question, I said to her, “Things aren’t right today. I will talk to you tomorrow.”
As I walked, I could feel her still standing, wondering what was wrong. But I walked straight into the waiting vehicle. Looking into the rear-view mirror, I saw how bloodshot my eyes had become. I felt that avoiding her eyes had been the right thing. I was trying to start the car when Mum’s call came. I picked the call. When a voice came through, it wasn’t Mum’s. It was a neighbour’s.
In the morning, the neighbours didn’t see Mum sweeping the front of the house as she often did. Mum had made the sweeping a habit. She did it even when there was no single leaf to be seen. She may have come to consider the ritual as some kind of exercise. As the day got older and no one saw her, they had decided to check. Someone peeped through the keyhole and realized there was a key on the other side. It meant that she hadn’t come out of the house. The door was broken. Mum was found dead.
The previous day, when I spoke to Mum, she had said that she was feeling fine. Something must have come up in the night, after we had spoken. I blamed myself for refusing to find a girl from the village to stay with her. More importantly, I blamed myself for considering everyone a Lilliputian, just because I found a job with Butterfly. If I hadn’t treated the pharmacist the way I did, he would have given Mum the drugs.
What had become of the driver I sent? It was needless to call him again. Even if he had reached Bassa and called Mum, no one would have answered her phone.
The next morning, there was news that a night Marco-Polo bus travelling from Jos to Bassa had plunged into a river.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed