Every morning promptly at 9, he sets his prayer mat down on the defaced and eroded sidewalk and prays for passersby, goading them with blessings, yelling at the top of his voice… “Sissy, Broda, Allah bless you” He calls out once too often.
But rarely does a coin land in that shallow calabash and rarely still does anyone see or hear him. Of course the eyes watched and the sounds touched ears…
His prayer beads move gracefully between remnants of fingers and my book falls into the gutter beside him. I glance into the deep void of eyes long gone and fearfully look away. I drop something into the calabash and race away. Through the back of my head I can still see the face, devoured by leprosy, no nose, no ears, no eyes, the white bone of his chin contrasting with the sunbathed ebony skin. Tightly wrapped turban depicts capabilities and strength without a face. I hear the prayers as he rains Allah’s mercy on me. I feel the eyes pierce my back and I quicken my pace…
Little hands grab my blouse and I struggle to release myself. Looking back in an effort to free myself from the persistent blond beggars, I see the old man scratching his gums with a knife while staring sightlessly into a mirror. As I enter the embrace of the university gates a lone tear creeps down my cheek.
The morning I left for Lagos, he was still sitting at the gates side, calling on Allah to help passersby. And I saw a newspaper boy drop 10kobo into the calabash.
Throwback thursday and I am sharing a short written in 1992…
Displaced thoughts reshape the events of the other day. Sitting under mango shade, chewing, tanning. Dew – splashed wind irritates the goose bumps on leathery skin. One more beard hair to pull out. He shivers as the cold green water washes off the sleep. Pulls on pants, the best he has. Tops it off with his bus – corner shirts, you know the one with Michael Jackson singing ‘Thriller’ or is it ‘Beat it’? Any way the high heeled runners complete the picture, he has to be dressed his best. After all he is not a small child and he has a date. A date with his JAMB examination.
No, you think it is poly-JAMB? I am sure it is JAMB, the year was 1983 and the business of poly-JAMB had not begun. I digress, OK let me stick with my story. School walls welcomed him at 7am for the 9am papers. The big policeman seemed a necessary fixture looking through students in front of him and growled “Dem don cancel the papers, dem say thief steal something and fit leak am sef.” The poster behind his balding pot confirmed words and the laughing shoes reversed direction homebound till further notice.
Same morning ritual, yes including the tannin stick that I forgot to mention before. The footfalls entered the hall. This time no cheat or thief intervened and he sat poised to regurgitate. 5 years, 8 months and 29 days of work in 5 hours less a 30 minute break. The shading took shape forming an interesting pattern on the official answer sheet. 10 more questions to go and only a few minutes left, rush, read, hurry, time’s out. Dejected, he gets up grabs his cap and walks home. Reflecting, wondering what could have been done better and how? His chance?
Words pour from his barely open lips, incoherent babbles, a child’s first attempts at speech? Laughter, then quite rapidly it subsides and he greets the folks at the compound edge. Life follows its predictable pace, silence, errands, boredom, more unsaid, unheard words, serious dialogues with self. And then the clear voice from the little toothpaste radio,”JAMB results are out.”
He repeats his cleansing ritual at the appointed time and approaches the result center. Pauses, eyes shut and prays intensely before attempting to peek at the results. His eyes open and examine his scores, laughter falls from his lips and the crowds revive a fainted man. He rises and runs. I saw him five days later, naked and roaming refusing to be caught by the expressway. Nine years later, he has more mileage than a 10 year old taxi cab.
There is a new generation of praise singers that constantly sell their souls and voices to the highest bidder. They are so loved by the rich and powerful as they complement every word, idea, spewed by these people for some rice, naira, dollar, or whatever tip, privilege or opportunity that is tossed in their direction. They praise with their blogs, their songs, their dances and worship at the feet of their masters, who can do no wrong. These praise singers are spineless chameleons changing colors and teams without blinking. Curiously resilient their voices are loud and they reap the rewards of their ‘loyalty’ as they ascend to levels previously reserved for sacred cows. Once in a while, however an insane master, unmoved by the incessant adulation, crushes a praise singer, like roach. Before we can get used to the quiet another praise singer arises ululating dirges to the memory of the fallen gong.