ACROSS THE FOREST OF GHOSTS

A man is got to eat, irrespective of the times or season. Wars come to make way for peace, night come to make way for day, sorrows come to make way for joy, birth come to make way for death, dictators come to make way for liberals, but it is the man who still has the breath of life in him that lives to bear witness to the inevitable changes of life. How could a man live to bear witness to life if he has no bread and wasn’t promised any?

Ekwueme had to eat, his children had to eat and his wife had also got to eat. It was a hard time in the country, and so early in the year, making it all the more hard for the common Nigerian like many others and Ekwueme.

I will tell you why it was this hard for Ekwueme ; beginning from the twenty-first day of December, THE Igbo people of South-Eastern Nigerian travel in a massive exodus down to the motherland. The ubiquitous Igbo people journeyed by air, road and sea from wherever land they find to plant the seeds of hard work and ingenuity for which they are known. They return to with purses bulging with the produce of sweat and wit for the many celebrations and cultural activities scheduled for that prime period-though some others believe they come for the Christmas celebrations. At the beginning of January, they journeyed back again in massive return to their lands of struggle, but this time with flattened out purses, eviscerated of its precious contents and souls submerged in deep desperation. Die-hard thrift becomes the norm of the period as many employers will even defer on the monthly salaries for January. The economy becomes stagnant until way into February when life must have returned to a condition of normalcy.

For some other reason, the situation was made more compounded this year; the government had unexpectedly announced a hike in petrol price from sixty five naira to two hundred naira on the eve of New Year. They explained that the billions of dollars spent on fuel subsidy could be channeled into more productive uses; they said Nigerians should be willing to ‘pay the price now for a better tomorrow’. It was then a steep price for the indifferent citizens to pay for a tomorrow which they aren’t sure of judging from the conditions of the present. It was such a high price especially at that time of the year and for people like Ekwueme, hence they felt duped, cornered and outplayed. They voiced their fears amidst company as they helped themselves to generous servings of food and palm wine as guests in a person’s house celebrating a thing or another. Such was the benefits of coming back home at the end of the year because they drowned their fears and worries in the sea of festivities. However, the fears they expressed in the midst of company were not as eloquent as the one they told themselves when they lay in their beds at night, thinking of how life would be with the recent development, for Nigerians are a people dependent on petrol next to water and food for their daily survival; they needed petrol was to power houses and appliances, factories depended on diesel to run the heavy duty generators that generated power for operations and the long queues of cars lining filling stations is a constant testament to the dependence of the people’s dependence on the precious abundant scarce fluid, so the hardship did come at such an odd time. So odd was the timing of the government that when the people had gone to the motor-park for the journey home, they couldn’t pay for the sudden exorbitant fare price that had suddenly more than tripled and so they had repeated their journeys from the motor-park back to their houses in the village, their spirits dampened with fear and doubt. They feared the worst, they needed to go back to the cities where they irked their living, and the thought of staying longer than necessary in the motherland was inconceivable. The motherland is not to be ploughed; it is meant to receive with joy the son that had returned from the big cities with the Golden Fleece.

Some days in the motherland, and the situation had escalated into a widespread panic for the cost of foodstuffs had increased tremendously; the traders had to incorporate the cost of transporting their wares to the market into the cost of their wares. It wasn’t only the prices of food that had escalated, but the price of water, the cost for pumping air into your flat car tyres, the cost of mending your shoe-that had suddenly given in to the constant strain of having to protect your wayward feet – at the itinerant cobblers’ and the price of every other commodity and service increased in price. The rationale was that that petrol had increased in price. People panicked and prayed but then they had to eat, come what may.

Ekwueme had travelled to his native Ekwulobia for the festive seasons with his young wife and five jolly children. In the ecstasy of the celebrations of the past two weeks, he had forgotten all the toils and sufferings he had to go through in the outskirts of Port-Harcourt in order to feed himself and his family, pay the rent for his modest one-room apartment, pay for the school fees of his children in the public school and occasionally buy some fine things for his young wife when he did have a very lucky day and as well send home some money occasionally to his aged mother who seemed to have defied the deteriorating effects of age and placed so much value more on her bicycle on which she cycled long distances to her cocoyam farms scattered everywhere amongst neighbouring villages than on any other of her belongings (not that she had much). He was a man that toiled at no trade in particular, for he was skilled in no craft neither was he literate, but like every other Nigerian, those things didn’t stand in the way of being a man that desired to stand upon his own feet with his pride intact. He had worked as a bus conductor, a mass transit driver, a launderer, a farmer, in a paper mill, as a janitor, as a porter in the international airport and on one occasion, he had smuggled cars across the Seme border into the country for a fair price. He did whatever he had to do so he could eat, and so his family could eat.

The celebration over, Ekwueme had to go back to Port-Harcourt. He couldn’t afford the new fare for himself not to mention his family. He was stranded in Ekwulobia his native home, and like many others who had emigrated to large cities, he believed his native home to be barren, too barren of nutrients for his sweat to bear any healthy fruits, and so he was desperate, desperate to leave his homeland to the city and to a world where a man with no trade, no skill and no education could make out a living for himself. One week and his desperation had heightened, the population of the home-comers was slowly reducing as the well-to-do, high ranking civil servants and company workers who had cars and whose earnings could cushion the new shock on the economy made their journeys back to the big cities. He no longer hung out with peers over bottles of cheap palm wine, for he could sense the new thoughts that swept through the village; any group of people that were seen idling away were regarded as the dregs of the city life, the ones that relied on the crumbs that fell off the tables of the real city dwellers, the ones that couldn’t afford the fare back to the big cities and would probably end up staying back in the village adding to the competition of men who cut bunches of palm fruits off palm trees. He didn’t like to be regarded with such a class of people, it was a given he fell into that category, but then, it shouldn’t have to be spelt out to him, not in such clear terms. He brooded over it while he watched his children play in the sand in front of his late father’s house oblivious to the mounting scare and anxiety their father was faced with, oblivious to what it spelt to their immediate future. He brooded every day and got comforted every night by the warm feel of his wife’s skin next to his, forgetting his many troubles upon her sumptuous young bosom to rise to the reality of his world with the ever-punctual sun.

He did strike some luck one day; a Julius Berger Mack truck had come to the village to deposit a mound of gravel to be used for the construction of a senator’s new mansion. The senator was a native of Ekwulobia and represented the district in the House of Senate. He had demolished the mansion which he had built during his days as an appointee in the Federal Ministry, now he had demolished it now for the reason that it didn’t fit his present status, so he had awarded the multi million naira contract to Julius Berger Construction Company, a household name renowned for architectural ingenuity. Trucks laden with building materials invaded the narrow dusty roads of the village and in no time, the senator’s compound looked like the site of a government project. Ekwueme recognized Yemi his one-time neighbour back in their bachelor days. Yemi was one of the drivers of the monstrous trucks, they met and Yemi agreed that Ekwueme could hitch a ride to as far as Oyigbo on the cargo hold of his truck. And so, Ekwueme raced all the way home, bade his family a hasty farewell, he didn’t meet his mother for she had cycled away to one of her cocoyam farms. He promised to send for his wife and children immediately he could raise enough money for their fare, he was very optimistic that it won’t be far away as he raced back to meet Yemi and his transport back to Port-Harcourt.

The journey was a most uncomfortable one, he gripped tightly at a metal bar welded onto the side of the cargo hold as the truck sped along the road, too fast for its size. The wind blew furiously at him, his shirt billowing in the wind like full sails upon a stormy sea, it blew against his ears until he was sure that he had definitely turned deaf, it blew at his eyes so much so that the tears flew out drawing two horizontal patterns from both eyes towards to ears. He could count how many times he opened his eyes during the trip for he had to keep them shut to quell the impact of the wind upon them. He did hop down at Oyigbo, and waved at Yemi for his kindness as the latter veered off into a side road that led to a gravel quarry. Ekwueme was grateful to Yemi for his help, but he was more grateful that the torturous journey had come to an end. He boarded a bus from Oyigbo to Port-Harcourt and fell asleep the very moment the bus had taken off. As he lay on his bed that night, he fell into a deep slumber such was the depth of his slumber that he never dreamt of anything. He had woken up in the wee hours of the morning to relieve the pressure of his bladder at the small bush nearby, and then he had returned to his bed and dreamt. He dreamt that his wife was beside him, massaging his aching back, wherever she touched, the ache vanished. When she was done with the massage, he felt brand new, and then he rolled over to touch her exposed thigh where the sparkling white threadbare sheets didn’t cover and then he awoke. He didn’t know what woke him up, but he found out that the sunlight shone through the gap in the curtains upon his back; he must have been lying on his belly and his arm was outstretched to his side as though he was reaching out for something. He sighed deeply in regret, he missed his wife so badly. Silently cursing the government for his woes, he dragged himself out of bed, too embittered to say his morning prayers. He didn’t know what to do with today, but he stumbled about as he made to go out for the day.

In Port-Harcourt, the new price was having a devastating toll, the business life had ground to a stand-still, all banks and offices had shut down to protest the new government policy. The labour unions were going about arranging for a protest march as done in Lagos and Abuja, but the people feared the consequencies of such riots as they watched on AIT as the police threw tear gas into peaceful protesters, clubbed them with batons and opened fire on them in a desperate bid to disperse them. Every Nigerian knew Nigeria, that whoever died for such causes died a vain death, one that profited nothing and no one, absolutely no one would so much as question the extra-judicial action of the trigger-happy morons in black uniforms. Everybody hated the situation, but they remained in their houses for three days talking about the situation but doing nothing about it. The wise knew how to sit out every ugly situation in the country and adapt to the outcome unlike the Americans who would complain and commit their lives to effecting the desired change. After the third day, people needed to move about not to their offices or their places of work, but they had to move about, maybe to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of movement or their innate desire to be free of all physical constraints at the very least. In the mornings and evenings, crowds of commuters would be seen at every junction awaiting the arrival of any taxi, bus or tricycle. They would scamper towards any available one that slowed to halt and before the vehicle would slow down completely, they would clamber into it sustaining injuries in the process. It was then that Ekwueme saw his chance, his opportunity in the face of adversity, a way to get what he longed for above all things; his wife. He had barely eaten these few days and his pocket had run dry, the worst of it all being that he had completely given up hope, had cursed himself for coming back to Port-Harcourt instead of sitting out this turbulent time in the village where he was sure of at least a meal of cocoyams if worse did come to worst, he wanted to go back to Ekwulobia, to his wife, to an assurance of a meal of cocoyams, but then he had no money to pay for the fare back home and so when he did see his chance, he tried not to consider the hitch they stared him in the face but passed the night toiling over the best strategy to tackle the issue on his mind.

TO BE CONTINUED……

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