The Beggars and Mad People Society in Aba was an ecosystem of its own – bursting with activities; recruitment, retirement and even transfers. For the sake of this conversation, let’s ignore that those two adjectives stir up unease in the ears of a lot of people and call a spade what the layman in Nigeria would call a spade. I was very young and honestly intrigued by how sophisticated the system seemed to be to my childlike mind. This was an industry that boasted of individuals who had carved niches for themselves and dominated conversations of sane, gainfully engaged people over Ludo games or bottles of Crush. Some were known for their dance moves and others for the shows they unknowingly held for jobless youngsters in street corners. Somehow, they found a way to creep into the conversation of people who may not have realized that they had all along been noticing the trend in the kind of naira notes a certain beggar preferred or that another mad woman had given birth to her third baby in two years. People even went as far as having favorite beggars. I know I found some more interesting than the others.
Aba was a rowdy, energetic town whose turbulent energy permeated lives of all who lived in it whether or not it had their permission. Here, spontaneity was thrust upon you; unprecedented events had a way of fastening themselves unto your attention and somehow, whatever it was would seem spectacular enough to have been worthy of your precious time. On some days, it would be the tale of a child who had turned into a tuber of yam or bleating goat after picking money off the floor of Ahia Ohuru. On others, it would be of how the Bakassi boys had slaughtered a random teenager after they had placed their matchet on him and it turned red, indicating that he was a thief. On very uneventful days, a child or two would get missing and then parents all over the town would ground their children for a week or so, constantly reminding them of the dangers of the streets during “mber” months. The commercial verve coupled with the government’s seeming disinterest in the sustainable sanitization of the town only heightened the mounds of debris and chaos that characterized the town especially areas like Ngwa road, Ariaria Market and Obohia. Few residential areas had tarred roads, street gates and clean gutters and mine was one of them. We lived on Nweke Street – a long, clean street in Umungasi that housed everything from residential buildings to hospitals and then churches. Two and three story buildings dominated the street with the most prominent house being the stead of the mother of the current governor of Abia State as at then. The street was ripe with activity, birthing avenues and closes as off-shoots as it snaked its way towards Eziama. The influential and lowly inhabited it alike and in the crevices of this diversity, life sprang forth for children like me. My parents had made it clear that we were to stay indoors at all times and our housemaids did a fine job of enforcing that instruction with threats of reporting our mischief to our parents or in my case, telling my mum that I had bought a lavender-scented lip gloss from the shop opposite Jacob Memorial Hospital. Like most of the apartment buildings of the 90’s, ours on the second floor, had two balconies – one in front, spilling out from the sitting room and another at the rear of the building, just beside the kitchen. Somehow, the rear-side balconies popularly called “backyard” usually served as stores for keeping everything from drums of water to garbage cans, gas cylinders and tripods. Ours was no exception and so the most I experienced of the outside world as a child were from the other balcony which we called “front”. It was through evenings spent on this front that I met people, heard things, decided on who I liked or didn’t like and then learned valuable lessons on acknowledging the journeys of all men and how in some way, every story is worth telling.
Zam Zam was a beggar with the voice so powerful. On many occasions, the sun either rose with his voice piercing through our sleep in the dark or set with the melody, a vehicle to roll the day into oblivion. He had a severe limp and always wore dirty brown shirts. My memory gets blurry when I think of his head but I think he wore red face caps. Maybe I cannot remember because I could never look at him. Each time I heard his voice – a high pitched tenor that spread across Nweke Street and its environs with unnerving resolve – chills would run down my spine and I would run to whatever part of the house had the most people in it and rock myself back and forth waiting for the fear to leave with him. But he always lingered. Sometimes, he would hobble his way into our compound singing the same old song; zam zam zam…Chineke zam, zam o. Onye kere uwa biko zam zam o – a plea to God, the creator of the world to answer him. Perhaps everyone else felt it too; the street was always quiet enough for Zam Zam’s voice to be the most outstanding element. Even when it wasn’t quite dark, children rolling tires on the streets disappeared, the hoots from bike men suddenly faded away and the sounds of pestles banging their fists on the chests of mortars became dull. He would sometimes sit in our compound, right beside the parked cars singing his heart out, not minding that no one ever gave him as little as 50 kobo, which was enough to buy one Sprint Bubblegum in the late 90’s. No one gave him anything but no one also asked him to go away. Everyone was fine with the arrangement except for me. The more he sang, the more I cringed in fear until he became a tool with which the housemaids taunted me. All he came to do was beg but in truth, he only taught me to house fear. At least he did so until the streets went on for months and then years without his shrill voice piercing the dark to inflict us with his droning melody. The day we remembered to ask, we heard he had died. However, this was just one man. There were others out there like Emeka.
Emeka was tall, dark and gripping in the way that most mad people we had seen were not. He had a strut that did a fine job of hiding his slight limp and full beards, nothing compared to his teeny weeny afro. He wore a soulful look with the same bland expression all the time but there was also an air of dignity that other mad men such as Onye Ike did not have. The soot and grime clung to him desperately but we barely noticed them each time he walked past wearing those whitish tunics. He treaded the streets with his feet bare and smoked every chance he got. I never heard his voice but I always saw his mouth move when he asked a shop owner for a cigarette or bread. I wondered how his voice would sound – Was it soft or gruff in support of his beards and huge appearance? I wondered how he got the money – did he have family who sneaked up to him at night and replenished his pot of gold? Somehow we knew his name was Emeka but didn’t dare approach him or even scream from afar for fear that he might mark our faces and plot a revenge. He had built a reputation for himself of leaping into the air to kick hell out of whoever stood or walked in front of him. When people began to stay away, he failed to realize it so once in a while he would spontaneously leap and kick the hell out of the “nothing” that stood or walked in front of him. The most interesting thing about Emeka was that he disappeared and reappeared once in a while looking refreshed – hairs trim, clothes clean and just a tad more pristine. Whenever he returned to the streets from his getaways, people talked. They said he had sober days in which he would spend time with his family. They’d clean him up, feed him and keep him away from the cigarettes. But they said that his illness always came back – clung to him like the parasite that it was and would not leave him for more than was necessary. They said it was a spell; a man had found Emeka atop his wife and had cast a spell on him.
The last time he disappeared, the news we heard was slightly different. It was said that a powerful pastor had prayed for him and gotten him healed and that he had given his life to Christ. Some said he had even stopped smoking and constantly sat at his family shop at Immaculate Avenue. Anyway, it was hard to confirm the story because no one ever saw him for themselves. It was always someone they knew that came bearing the news and so we took it for what it was, knowing that a narrative that had changed hands so often was most likely adulterated. Even though we were unsure, we hoped for his sake that it was true. We did not see him for weeks and then months went by without seeing him leaping into the air to kick no one in particular. The day we remembered to ask, we heard he had died.
Many important things happened in Aba; Ariaria Market happened all the time, wealthy men and their politics happened, Bakassi and their killings happened but these people also happened. Our chests were not too full to house their stories and so in the midst of talking about Orji Uzor Kalu’s mother and how her house on Nweke Street became a party hub each time she returned from her numerous trips abroad, we found time to notice that the man who had sat by Nicholas Street begging for alms was now a cobbler at the same spot. We found it necessary to notice that the new mad woman spoke English well enough to be a former Abia Poly student. We somehow found it necessary to sit on our front porches every evening and tell stories about passersby because they somehow deserved attention whether or not they were supposed to be worthy of our time. Somehow, we found life to be more meaningful when everybody participated.
With the Somebody Syndrome a never ending fad in Nigeria, it is easy to ignore those without the standard identity tags – titles, crazy money (Here, for your wealth to be recognized, it had to be regarded as crazy money, bastard money or too much money), ostentatious style or a recognizable share of the national cake through contracts and/or public office roles. This explains why we were forced to notice Orji who was crippled but owned two three-story buildings on Nweke Street and an adaptable automobile. For the most part, in Nigeria, you are either somebody or nobody. From a critical standpoint, it is easy to see how the corruption that has so eaten into the fabric of the Nigerian society is hinged to the exaggerated sense of entitlement of the privileged to the detriment of the masses who have also in some ways been programmed to believe that their impoverished states are perpetual with no elements of importance to the society. Many of those who dare to think that they are deserving of something better are driven by a rabid sense of desperation to be regarded as superior to their reality and then indulge in devious and ruthless activities usually designed to displace the affluent and covet their good fortune at any costs. An intricate system of vices and injustice has scored itself on the heart of society simply because of the inability of people to acknowledge otherness.
Now, I am all ripe with womanhood and no longer have a balcony nestled halfway into the sky from which I can notice whose head is balding or whose husband has returned from wherever it is that family men disappeared to once in a while. So when I walk the streets, I try to find these stories in eyes, scowls and grunts because every second unfurls with humans being and deserving to be seen. I take notes of how familiar faces go missing during certain seasons and how divergent political opinions are no longer expressed only through riots but also queer means like keeping a coffin for months in front of a piece of land as a warning to the government to stay away. The tales of men like Zam Zam and Emeka are only two out of millions of stories that when acknowledged, exercise our humanity and give meaning to the context in which we can give ourselves to the society. All of us are life happening at the same time; no one is just a filler. The stories most untold are usually windows into the anatomy of culture and society within which we can discover what ails communities and decipher problems that can birth sustainable change in the world we inhabit. The thing about privilege is that while we do not always acknowledge it, we bury ourselves in it until all we can see are reflections of ourselves and those who look like us. We sit within our bulletproof cars with tinted glasses and rush past life happening in its fullness because what we have defined as a journey should not include the beggar by the roadside who calls you Oga mi each time you drive past or the cab man who has driven past your mansion every day for the last five years. You see, the thing that makes life itself resides in all of us and a gross imbalance will continue to exist until we become aware of each other even though acknowledging others can sometimes breed unease. It is navigating these kind of uncomfortable conversations that uncovers questions that carry in their bellies, answers whose concealment has left us wanting. The thing about otherness is that it consists of elements without which the wholeness of self cannot be achieved.
Self lies with you but finds its essence in causes bigger than itself. Socio-economic, scientific and political phenomena are explored within the veins of humanity and its evolution as informed by every man’s existence. Tools like language and science are under-utilized when we fail to engage all parameters that can possibly expand their usefulness in forging more sustainable versions of civilization. So I think that we must awaken to a higher consciousness that allows for the celebration of resources that come alive each time a pair of feet hit the ground. It is now vital for us to count it a privilege that greatness may not be as scarce as we believed it to be; embrace the knowledge that it litters the streets disguised in the unusual and sometimes, the unwanted. Accepting this discomfort that comes with acknowledging that greatness lies raw and unrefined in the questions and answers that we embody is gold yet untapped.